In the nation's oil patch, July 14, 1986, was Black Monday -- the day the number of active drilling rigs sank to 663, its lowest mark in 46 years of record-keeping.

The statistic was evidence of an oil bust that had, in the space of a few short months, shattered the economies of oil-producing states, sent jobless rates soaring in the Southwest and created a widening pool of despair in the industry.

A little more than a year later, the rig count is hovering at 1,000 -- a far cry from the boom days of the early 1980s, but enough to bring a few faint sighs of relief from the oil patch.

"There are some slight signs of a pickup, some scattered announcements of an increase in capital spending," said Len Bower, an American Petroleum Institute economist. "There is a sense that the price we are likely to see over the next couple of years is not going to be $10 {a barrel} but something higher than that."

"We are very cautiously optimistic," said Dick Sparling of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. "The cost of drilling is the lowest it has been since the mid-1970s, and that makes the future look a little brighter."

But the mild euphoria infecting the domestic industry could be short-lived. After a brief flirtation with the $22-a-barrel range, oil prices have dropped to slightly over $18 a barrel amid reports of overproduction by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Few analysts expected the $22 price to last; it stemmed from market jitters over Iran's threat to block oil transportation through the Persian Gulf, not from any imminent shortage. Nevertheless, the abrupt downturn has set off jitters in the domestic industry, underscoring the United States' increased vulnerability to pressure from Middle East oil producers.

After nearly 15 years of riding the oil teeter-totter, watching some sectors of the economy stagnate when the price is high and other sectors struggle when the price is low, some economists believe that stability may depend less on the health of the domestic oil industry than on what lies beyond it.

So the debate has turned again to the question of U.S. energy policy, and whether the nation should or can wean itself from its oil habit in the interest of national security.

"It comes down to a decision about whether this country is willing to pay more to have a more secure energy supply," Bower said. "What you're talking about is forcing the market to do things it's not doing now."

Since 1981, the nation has had no formal energy policy beyond allowing the free market to control production and prices. "The answer to our having all we need and no more being dependent on OPEC is to turn the energy industry loose," then-candidate Ronald Reagan told The New York Times in April 1980.

The administration moved swiftly to decontrol oil prices, accelerating a process that had been put into place under the Carter administration. It has been less successful in persuading Congress to decontrol natural gas prices or remove other regulations, including the windfall profits tax and some environmental restrictions, that it considers an impediment to the industry.

At the same time, however, the administration dismantled or deemphasized many of the energy-independence programs that had been put into place since the first oil embargo in 1973.

Conservation programs, alternative technology research and federal support for renewable energies, such as solar power, were among the first to feel the budget ax in the early 1980s. Efforts to do away with the Energy Department altogether have been abandoned, but funding for its civilian programs has been cut nearly in half.

The administration also proposed to stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, now considered an important buffer between the United States and any threatened cutoff of oil supplies. At Congress' insistence, the administration has continued to fill the reserve, but more slowly than was envisioned in the late 1970s.

Congress, meanwhile, killed the Synthetic Fuels Corp., established with great fanfare under the Carter administration to support technologies that would wring oil from shale.

As long as oil prices remained high, the three-market policy seemed to accomplish what Reagan had predicted.

By 1985, U.S. oil imports had dropped to 27 percent of its total consumption, from 46 percent eight years earlier. Of that, less than 36 percent was being supplied by OPEC nations that provided 70 percent of U.S. oil imports in 1977.

When prices collapsed last year, however, the situation changed radically. First to be squeezed out were the producers whose oil cost the most to pump from the ground. Many were domestic oil men pumping 10 barrels a day or less -- "stripper" wells -- or using expensive technology to wring the last drop from flagging fields.

By last May, U.S. production had dipped to 8.3 million barrels a day, the lowest in a decade. Imports accounted for 37 percent of U.S. consumption, and nearly 43 percent of that was coming from OPEC.

Virtually every recent study on the issue has concluded that unless the situation changes dramatically, the United States will be more than 50 percent dependent on foreign oil by the 1990s, and an increasingly large part of that will come from the Middle East.

The White House and Congress agree that oil imports at that level would be economically intolerable and a threat to national security. The disagreement begins at the question of who is to blame and continues into the question of what to do about it.

President Reagan contends that Congress is at fault for failing to accept all of his deregulatory proposals for the energy industry. "If those policies had been in place, our domestic oil industry would not be so seriously impaired today," he said last May.

Interior Secretary Donald Hodel has used the same argument in criticizing congressional reluctance to allow more offshore oil development and exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, believed to be the nation's best prospect for significant new reserves.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) accused Reagan of setting up the situation by failing to carry on the self-sufficiency programs endorsed by his predecessors.

"The drop in oil prices, while certainly a major factor, is not the sole culprit of our growing dependence on imported oil," Byrd said. "Believing that the best energy policy is no energy policy, the Reagan administration took a meat ax to America's domestic energy programs."

The White House, having rejected an oil-import fee sought by some law makers to artificially boost the price of domestic crude, is sticking to its free-market philosophy. Reagan has renewed his call for an end to the windfall profits tax, the decontrol of natural gas pricing, and an easing of some environmental and financial restrictions on oil production.

Congress, meanwhile, is considering a variety of measures aimed at reducing reliance on oil. Among them are bills that would increase support for the development of alternative transportation fuel, such as methanol from coal, ethanol from corn, and liquefied natural gas.

Proponents contend that these measures reflect prudence, preparing the nation for the certainty that one day the Middle East nations will control the world's oil supply.

"Those are all possibilities," said oil economist Bower. "But if you get into that, it will cost you more. They're all more expensive than what we're doing now.

"Then you're into the question of whether the country is prepared to tax itself in some fashion, whether we're willing to raise costs to have that more secure supply."