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Rising gas prices are the big energy story right now. But according to many energy experts, that's just a sideshow. They say the real news story here is the huge boom in oil and natural gas production in the United States. It could help the country reach an elusive goal: energy independence. NPR's John Ydstie has more.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Since the Arab oil embargo of 1973, energy independence has been a Holy Grail for virtually every American president.

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PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 - never.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have been talking about energy independence for decades.

YDSTIE: But now it may be within reach.

PHIL VERLEGER: Energy self-sufficiency is now in sight.

YDSTIE: That's energy economist Phil Verleger. He believes within 10 years, the U.S. will no longer need to import crude oil and will be a natural gas exporter. He says all those presidents, back to Richard Nixon, would be quite surprised by how this came about. Verleger says it's not the result of government policy or drilling by big oil.

VERLEGER: This is really the classic success of American entrepreneurs. These were people who saw this coming, managed to assemble the capital and go ahead.

YDSTIE: Small energy companies using controversial techniques like hydraulic fracturing, along with horizontal drilling, are unlocking vast oil and natural gas deposits trapped in shale in places like Pennsylvania and North Dakota. North Dakota, for instance, now produces half-a-million barrels a day of crude oil, and production is rising. Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University's Baker Institute also believes U.S. energy self-sufficiency is within reach.

AMY MYERS JAFFE: I would say that we're the closest to being able to fashion a policy that would get us to energy self-sufficiency than we've been in decades.

YDSTIE: Jaffe says that policy would include continuing the green light on developing shale oil and gas, while making sure it's done in an environmentally safe manner and continuing to require higher fuel efficiency in cars and trucks.

ROBIN WEST: This shale gale, I describe it as the energy equivalent of the Berlin Wall coming down. This is a big deal.

YDSTIE: Robin West, chairman and CEO of PFC Energy, has been in the energy consulting business for decades.

WEST: We estimate that by 2020, the United States, overall, will be the largest hydrocarbon producer in the world - bigger than Russia or Saudi Arabia. That's a big deal.

YDSTIE: While West says it's a transformative event, he doesn't say the U.S. will be energy independent. But, he says, the U.S. will likely end up with energy security, because most of its oil imports will come from Canada, not unstable places like the Middle East.

The other game changer, West argues, is a big boost for the U.S. economy from affordable electricity produced by cheap natural gas. West says it will help revitalize U.S. manufacturing. Phil Verleger agrees.

VERLEGER: We'll have an energy advantage in almost every area. And it'll be clean energy advantage - natural gas versus coal or oil. And it'll be an advantage that the Chinese can't, or no other country can quickly capture.

YDSTIE: Verleger says its likely to take a couple of decades for countries to exploit their shale gas resources because they can't easily recreate the recipe of entrepreneurship, property rights and financing that led to the U.S. shale explosion. But Dan Kammen, a professor in the energy and resource group at the University of California-Berkeley, is a skeptic.

DAN KAMMEN: Just simply mining our fossil fuel resources to try to get to a 100 percent number in a decade or two decades I think really takes us exactly in the wrong direction.

YDSTIE: For instance, Kammen says, though some natural gas is much cleaner than coal, it's not all created equal. Some has a quite dirty environmental footprint when mining techniques are factored in. And, he says, there's a better and cleaner way to get an economic boost.

KAMMEN: The real question is: Can we build the industry base so that we are not only using our own solar, wind and other renewable resources, but we're exporting those technologies? And that's really where the big economic prize is.

YDSTIE: Furthermore, say Kammen, even if the U.S. produces most or all of its own crude, oil will remain a global commodity with a global price, so U.S. businesses and consumers will not be immune to price shocks. West, Jaffe and Verleger don't dispute that, but they say those price shocks will become less damaging as consumers move to higher-mileage vehicles, some that might even run on cheap natural gas or on electricity produced by that gas.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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