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This chart, courtesy of The Atlantic, shows how rapidly natural gas has grown as a share of the United States’ energy system.

This chart, courtesy of The Atlantic, shows how rapidly natural gas has grown as a share of the United States’ energy system.

The story of how the industry rejuvenated itself by finding new markets in Asia and developing new products like bio-energy and bio-plastics is fascinating in itself, but it is the unique response to dealing with the environmental movement that could prove instructive for the oil sands.

Mr. Lazar said environmental groups had figured out they could win concessions by putting pressure on the clients of forestry companies. “It was just one more battle to fight while trying to survive,” he said. “We asked them for a break but they said it wasn’t their job to give us a break, it was their job to give us a push. Their business model is not to rest on the status quo but to press for continuous improvement. So we said ‘would you agree on a long-term plan to find solutions together?’”

I’m wary, and have concerns about the environmental impacts of fracking and other methods, but this would be quite a remarkable story if it happened:

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

Small energy companies using such controversial techniques as hydraulic fracturing, along with horizontal drilling, are unlocking vast oil and natural gas deposits trapped in shale in places like Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Texas. North Dakota, for instance, now produces a half-million barrels a day of crude oil, and production is rising.

Much of what McClendon says is misleading – wind power is as cheap as gas in some places and falling fast, and cutting back on gas doesn’t have to mean burning more coal. But his plan is clear. He’s not going to back off until every last square foot of shale rock in America is drilled and fracked and sucked clean of gas. McClendon may rely on sophisticated new drilling technologies, but at heart, he’s driven by the same dream of endless extraction that has gripped oil barons and coal companies since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In the end, all his talk of energy independence and a cleaner, brighter future boils down to a single demand, as simple as it is disastrous: Drill, baby, drill.

“We’ll look back on 2012,” Byron King goes on, “as the best year for the energy business in Pennsylvania since Col. Drake drilled his first well before the Civil War.”

Full disclosure: We’re still skeptical about some of the big claims Byron makes. Can a domestic energy boom really overcome decades of debt racked up at the local, state and federal levels? As with any functioning relationship, we keep an open mind.

Examine the evidence.  After 20 years of sinking deeper and deeper into dependence on foreign oil, the United States reversed that trend last year.