American natural gas production is rising at a clip not seen in decades, pushing down prices of the fuel and reversing conventional wisdom that U.S. gas fields were in irreversible decline.
The new drilling boom uses advanced technology to release gas trapped in huge shale beds found throughout North America - gas believed just a decade ago to be out of reach.
Shale gas could ultimately be important beyond North America. The rest of the world has shale formations on an immense scale. Many of them, including beds in Europe, Russia and China, are known to contain gas, but exploration and assessment of those fields with the new production techniques is just beginning.
The trend has significant long-range implications for U.S. consumers and businesses. A sustained increase in gas supplies over the next decade could slow the rise of utility bills, obviate the need to import more gas from elsewhere around the globe, including liquefied natural gas delivered in tankers, and make energy-intensive industries more competitive.
While the process of extracting gas produces some environmental damage, natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, releasing less of the emissions that cause global warming than coal or oil. It is now used primarily for residential heating and cooking, power generation, providing energy for industrial processes, and as a feed stock for fertilizer, chemicals and plastics.