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Our Energy Potential

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Imagine a place where jobs are plentiful, and the housing market is thriving. A place where even low-playing service jobs come with signing bonuses and other benefits.

Sound too good to be true? No. It’s real, and it’s right here in the U.S.

The scenario described above can be found in Williston, N.D. The secret to their newfound prosperity: oil. The state is drilling at record pace, with oil production doubling from 2008 to 2010. And that’s creating an economic boom in towns such as Williston. People are working, and businesses are hiring.

North Dakota produced 424,000 barrels a day in July. That’s an increase of 86 percent over the same period in 2009, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “U.S. Nears Milestone: Net Fuel Exporter.”

That’s right -- exporter. It may be time to rethink the old image of the United States as nothing more than a consumer of the world’s energy. Newly released data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, the U.S. imported 689.4 million barrels of everything from gasoline to jet fuel. But during that same time period, it sent abroad 753.4 million barrels.

This is a welcome switch, obviously. “The reversal raises the prospect of the U.S. becoming a major provider of various types of energy to the rest of the world, a status that was once virtually unthinkable,” the Journal points out.

We can thank advanced technology and market forces for these positive trends in our domestic energy picture. Thanks to new rock-fracturing techniques, for example, we’re now pulling hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil from the Bakken formation, a gigantic rock unit that lies under Montana and North Dakota.

How much oil is there in the Bakken? According to energy expert David Kreutzer, the most recent reliable estimate is 24 billion barrels. That’s clearly a lot, but to see how much that really is, consider that the total estimated amount of oil we can recover in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay (where commercial oil drilling has been going on since the 1960s) is 13 billion.

That’s right, almost twice as much. The Bakken is now the most productive onshore oil field discovered in the last half century.

Then there’s the energy that can be pulled from the recently discovered Utica rock formation (mostly in Ohio). Estimates indicate that it contains oil, natural-gas liquids and natural gas equivalent to 25 billion barrels of oil.

And the brightening energy outlook isn’t confined to the three states mentioned so far. Improved exploration and production technologies have shown that states such as Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, West Virginia and Louisiana are now sitting on much larger oil and natural-gas reserves than previously thought.

In some states, the governments are enthusiastically supporting these efforts. Elsewhere, and parts of Washington, they are blocking it.

Think of the economic potential. According to a recent study by the energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, allowing access to domestic resources and imports of Canadian oil would generate more than 1 million jobs by 2018 and more than 1.4 million jobs by 2030. The federal government would stand to benefit tremendously as well, collecting more than $36 billion in tax revenue as soon as 2015 and more than $800 billion by 2030.

For far too long, “drilling for oil” has been something that Americans think of as occurring only in the Middle East, the Gulf of Mexico and in select parts of Alaska. The good news, though, is that it appears we’ve barely tapped our energy potential. The answer to many of our needs, it turns out -- both for energy and for economic recovery -- may be right under our feet. So let’s get going!

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