The new Bush administration is getting some sobering news from the oil front: Demand is going up, imports are rising, production from American wells is falling, and exploration for new domestic fields is at the lowest point in 50 years.

Scripps Howard News Service reports that figures for 1988 show the number of rigs drilling for oil in America at the lowest level since record keeping began in 1940, and even fewer are expected to be operating this year. The reasons: The low price of crude discourages drilling; the costs of exploration are higher in this country than abroad; and the United States appears to be running out of places to find oil.Two factors might turn the domestic exploration and production trend upward: A sharp rise in the price of oil, which doesn't seem in the cards for at least a few years; or the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to exploration, which is stalled by opposition from environmental groups.

Before leaving office, the Reagan administration took steps to open the Alaska refuge. President Bush also says he favors "prudent development" there. During a recent interview, he noted that Alaskan caribou are doing fine despite the argument years ago that construction of the oil pipeline from Prudoe Bay would decimate the herds. "I'm one who believes we can find the balance between environmental interests and national security interests," he said.

But even with President Bush behind it, opening of the wildlife refuge to drilling may be far in the future. Approval would have to come from Congress, where the environmental lobby carries great weight.

Without additional domestic production, America must depend more heavily on foreign oil. Imports accounted for 42 percent of the oil used here last year, compared with 31 percent four years ago. During the month of December, for the first time in nine years, the United States imported more than it produced.

A major part of the problem is that oil use is increasing. Demand rose by more than 3 percent last year. Muscle cars are making a big comeback. Speed limits are rising. The incentive to conserve seems to have been lost amid the world oil glut and lower fuel prices.

At some point down the road, Middle Eastern oil-producing nations, which have the largest reserves, are apt again to gain more control of the world market. Oil could become a political tool, as it was in the 1970s. Also expected then would be a strong surge in prices that could cripple the economies of consumer nations, including the United States.

The prospect ought to spur the Bush administration, Congress, and American consumers to get the nation's energy policies and programs in better order.