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Nature, Re-engineered to Meet Energy Needs

By MATTHEW L. WALD Thousands of inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs gathered in a suburban Washington convention center on Monday for the annual three-day meeting of ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy. It wasn’t quite the Oscars. At the registration desk, attendees received a goody bag that includeda report on clean energy from the Pew […]

GM and ABB: An Afterlife for the VOLT Electric Car

By MATTHEW L. WALD ABB; General MotorsA battery pack from a Chevy Volt. A new prototype lashes five of them together in an array that is supposed to provide two hours of electricity for three to five average houses. Advocates of electric cars and renewable energy have talked for years about repackaging the battery packs built […]

Blink’s new CEO says that even with the largest charger network in U.S., bigger is better


The Nissan Leaf is the most mainstream electric vehicle in the U.S., and it has a CHAdeMO DC fast-charge option. Ecotality’s Blink network offers CHAdeMO chargers. Ecotality is the managing organization behind The EV Project, which recently announced it had collected information on 24 million electric vehicle miles. So, if any group would have an opinion about the potential challenge to CHAdeMO from the SAE combo charger announcement, Ecotality would be that group.

To find out, we spoke with Donald Karner, Ecotality’s chief innovation officer, who said what others in the charging business told us during the Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS26): the cars – and EV buyers – will dictate which standard wins.

“We’re in the infrastructure business,” Karner said. “We supply infrastructure to fuel advanced vehicles. We’ve done hydrogen, we do level 2 AC. On the DC side, if and when vehicles come to market that utilize the combo connector in sufficient numbers that justifies us making the investment in installing those connectors and developing chargers that will operate under that protocol, of course we will.”

Can we accommodate two different standards? Yeah, we can do that. Is it going to cost more? Absolutely.

As you can see in the picture above, the Blink fast charger is dual port. “We did that a year and a half ago,” Karner said. “The guys back here [he indicates a competitor’s booth] are now saying, ‘oh, what everybody should do is dual port so that you can do CHAdeMo on one side and combo on the other side. Well, that’s exactly why we did that. A year and a half ago, we went to the SAE and said, ‘look, you guys have a problem. You are two years behind schedule. DC fast chargers are coming, the Nissan Leaf with CHAdeMo is coming. We’re sitting here as an EVSP [electric vehicle service provider] and we have to build a charger to service this. There’s no U.S. standard. What are you guys going to do?’ And the answer from the SAE committee was, ‘Not our problem. We don’t care. We’re going to focus on J1772 AC and that’s all we can do at one time.’

Now, there are clearly some competitive issues in there (between the automakers) so here the auto industry has shot itself in the foot again. Can we accommodate two different standards? Yeah, we can do that. Is it going to cost more than having one standard? Absolutely it’s going to cost more. Fast charging is already very expensive and the auto companies, because they couldn’t get along and are going to squabble, just like they did last time with inductive and conductive, are going to shoot themselves in the foot.”

I worry that we’re going to have garages burn down with Level 1 [chargers].

Karner said that, inside a DC fast charging station, energy from the grid is converted to DC power and there is a control piece that talks to the vehicle and then sends energy through the specific connector to he vehicle. When comparing CHAdeMO with the SAE combo charger, obviously the plug is different, but Karner said that the protocol is different, too, and, “it appears that you will need a different power section as well. A unit that meets the CHAdeMO specs would not meet the SAE specs. Of course, this is all speculation since, as of right now there is no North American standard. There is only the proposal for a standard.” Still, Karner said, “One can think about conspiracy theories that maybe that’s the way they wanted it be, or one could say that it’s too bad that that’s the way it happened. If it is, it is, but it will drive even more cost because, regardless of what the guys back here do, there will be tens of thousands of vehicles in the marketplace with CHAdeMO connectors on them before the first Combo connector vehicle ever hits the street, which right now is going to be the Chevy Spark, sometime in 2013.”

Karner said that we can’t yet know the difference in cost between the combo charging station and the CHAdeMO station, but guessed that it shouldn’t be too dramatic. The real cost will come from the non-recurring engineering costs and things like getting UL certification. “It’s unfortunate that the industry could not, as it did this time with the Level 2 AC connector, come to an agreement on a single DC-level connector,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody that would argue that the industry would not be better off with one DC standard. Of course, the SAE guys are going to argue that it should be theirs and the CHAdeMO guys will argue that it should theirs. That’s not our argument. We’re just sitting here saying it would be whole lot easier to have one that serves everybody instead of two.”

The chargers out in the field today are, of course, mostly being used by early adopters. Thus, Karner said, most of them are charging at home because they bought their vehicles before there was much of a public infrastructure available. From what he sees, most Leaf drivers charge with Level 2. With Chevrolet Voltdrivers, a larger percentage charge using only standard 110-volt outlets, and he expects to see the same thing with the Toyota Prius Plug-In. Karner said this reality could pose a problem.

We need people to feel comfortable that, ‘gee, if I need to go 120 miles in a day, I can do that.’

Karner is not a fan of regular Level 1 charging for a few reasons. First, the grid is better served by timed, quicker Level 2 charges rather than trickle charges. Second, most of the 110-volt charging cables are rated at 12 amps, and drawing 12 amps through a potentially old socket can heat up and corrode said socket. “We’re seeing, at a fairly alarming rate, that plugs melt,” he said. “Everyone is saying, ‘well, there’s something wrong with the plug. Well, it’s really the receptacle because that receptacle can’t transmit that level of power continuously. It just wasn’t made to do that. The receptacle itself has better heat transfer than the plug does, so the plug tends to get hot and melt. So, I worry that we’re going to have garages burn down and that type of thing with Level 1.”

The early adopters are very home-centric. Blink is working on education programs to teach them where public chargers are, so they get used to fueling their vehicles while shopping or out for entertainment. “As an industry, it is really important to us to have more than cars that only fulfill a mission that tethers them to home,” Karner said. “We need people to feel comfortable that, ‘gee, if I need to go 120 miles in a day, I can do that.’ That way, it doesn’t have to be a second or third car, it can be a first car. It’s developing that familiarity and that habit.

“We also want to get people who don’t have a place to charge overnight. The ’emerging mainstream’ is where we’re at now. We’re going to see those people in those multi-unit dwellings get EVs, and it’s going to be a lot easier for them to go to a DC fast charge station. There will be some work charging, but some employers don’t even provide parking for their employees, so we can’t rely on them. But the public infrastructure will encourage people in the emerging mainstream to seriously consider a plug-in vehicle.”

Plasma Gasification Raises Hopes of Clean Energy From Garbage



David Robau tours the country promoting a system that sounds too good to be true: It devours municipal garbage, recycles metals, blasts toxic contaminants and produces electricity and usable byproducts — all with drastic reductions in emissions.

Mr. Robau, an environmental scientist for the Air Force, has been promoting a method that was developed with the Air Force to dispose of garbage with neither the harmful byproducts of conventional incineration nor the environmental impact of transporting and burying waste. It is one of several innovative techniques that the United States military has been researching to provide alternatives to the open-pit burns that some veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars say have made them ill.

Already some waste companies and cities like New York have shown an interest in technology similar to what Mr. Robau has been promoting, known as plasma arc gasification. Proponents say the process can break chemical bonds and destroy medical waste, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), asbestos and hydrocarbons, some of which can be hazardous if disposed of in landfills or traditional mass-burn incinerators.

Still, some environmentalists are leery. They say the ability to fully dispose of waste will discourage recycling and the development of renewable products, and the gasification will still result in toxic substances like dioxins.

Mr. Robau maintains that the process is earth-friendly. “This is not incineration,” he said. “This is gasification, so it’s a lot cleaner, a lot better for the environment.”

Mr. Robau, who also heads a nonprofit organization based in Gulf Breeze, Fla., has overseen testing of the small-scale plasma arc gasification system, which cracks complex molecules into simple elements using energy as intense as the sun’s surface, making fuel for about 350 kilowatts of electricity from about 10 tons of garbage each day, enough to run the system.

The system has been hard at work in a 6,400-square-foot building at Hurlburt Field Air Force base in Florida’s panhandle. A mechanical shredder cuts household garbage into pieces no bigger than two inches. An airtight auger feeds the waste into an oxygen-poor gasification chamber, where temperatures reach more than 9,000 degrees.

In an instant, wood disintegrates, plastics turn to gas. Bits of metal and glass fall into a molten pool.

From two graphite electrodes, an arc of electricity leaps about a foot to the molten slag, producing a cloud of ionized particles known as plasma, which heats the chamber. Most heavier metals settle to the bottom of the pool, below a layer of liquid silica and other oxides. The metals are removed, cooled and used for steel or other products.

“Effectively, 100 percent of all the metals on the base are being recycled,” Mr. Robau said.

The liquid oxides are removed and form a glassy solid when cooled. The slag traps contaminants like errant lead molecules and other heavy metals in a vitreous matrix that takes up 1 percent of the volume of the original waste, Mr. Robau said, a tenth of the volume left over after traditional incineration.

The vitrified component meets standards for disposal and may even be suitable for use as a construction aggregate, according to Mr. Robau and other industry professionals.

In the chamber, organic gases break down into hydrogen and carbon monoxide — the components of a fuel called synthesis gas, or syngas — which exits the furnace.

The gas passes through a plasma torch polisher, which breaks down remaining complex molecules and soot.

Injected water cools the syngas to less than 200 degrees. The extreme temperature of the plasma followed by quick cooling inhibits the formation of dioxins and furans (another organic compound), according to Mr. Robau and other industry experts.

The lack of dioxin creation would be a benefit over traditional incinerators and other types of gasifiers, in which lower temperatures and incomplete burning result in toxic compounds.

Emissions rules forced a 99 percent cut in dioxin and furan emissions and a 96 percent reduction in mercury from traditional incinerators between 1990 and 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However, companies have to dispose of the toxic ash filtered from mass-burn facilities.

After water quenches the gas in the Hurlburt system, stripping processes produce sodium bisulfate and hydrochloric acid, which can be sold, Mr. Robau said.

The gas passes through three types of filters to catch remaining impurities. The resulting syngas is as clean or cleaner than natural gas, and the system produces less than half the nitrogen oxides and 5 percent of the sulfur oxides and mercury of a traditional incinerator, Mr. Robau said. The Air Force uses the syngas to produce enough electricity to power the system.

Companies have used plasma arc technology in steel refining for more than a century. Some small-scale plasma gasifiers are specialized to process materials like asbestos or medical waste.

In Japan, a plasma facility originally designed to zap residue from automobile shredding now handles up to 150 tons of municipal solid waste each day in the city of Utashinai. And construction on a plant of similar size, designed to process industrial waste and wood chips, wrapped up this summer in Morcenx, in southern France.

Companies have been eying plasma gasification of municipal waste with eager hopes, but until recently financing has lagged. Plasma facilities are expensive, and the energy-hungry arcs and torches can consume half of the generated electricity. On the other hand, the systems can also handle medical and hazardous waste, which can command two to four times the fees associated with municipal waste.

“The problem has been over the years trying to find that economic sweet spot,” said Joe Vaillancourt, who evaluates newer technologies for Waste Management, a $15.4 billion company with headquarters in Texas.

In the past five years, with increased interest in energy independence and sustainability, venture capitalists and companies have financed testing of small-scale systems, including a 25-ton system built and run by InEnTec in Arlington, Ore., Mr. Vaillancourt said. Waste Management now holds an equity stake in InEnTec.

Last month the Agriculture Department announced a conditional $105 million loan guarantee for Fulcrum BioEnergy to build a much larger system outside Reno, Nev. It will use three InEnTec plasma melters to process 400 tons of garbage a day, an unprecedented scale for a plasma municipal waste facility, said Mr. Vaillancourt and others in the industry. Fulcrum plans to create ethanol from the syngas, and expects the Reno plant to be running in 2014.

New York City, too, is looking for innovative technology to deal with some of the city’s waste. In March, the Bloomberg administration requested proposals to build a facility that would use newer techniques like plasma gasification oranaerobic digestion to process as much as 900 tons of garbage a day.

“New Yorkers want their trash to be handled in an environmentally friendly way,” said Caswell F. Holloway, deputy mayor for operations. “Anything would be better than putting it in the ground.” The city is reviewing the proposals.

Still, some environmental groups, like the Sierra Club and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, lump these techniques in with traditional incinerators, claiming that they still produce dioxin. They also oppose renewable energy credits for these facilities.

Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he believed there was a place for waste-to-energy operations, but only after recycling and composting programs had been maximized.

He said he still believed that communities could reach recycling rates of 60 to 70 percent. In his view it is premature for a city like New York, with a recycling rate of about 15 percent, to be considering setting up a new waste facility. “They’re not even at the point where they should be thinking about waste-to-energy,” Mr. Hershkowitz said.


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 12, 2012


An article on Tuesday about the plasma arc gasification method of waste disposal misstated part of the name of the organization with which Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist who said he believed that New York City’s low recycling rate makes its interest in waste-to-energy technology premature, is affiliated. Mr. Hershkowitz is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, not the National Resources Defense Council.



Cooking Up a Cleaner, Safer Open-Fire Stove


Women in Ghana testing the BioLite home cooking stove. The stove includes a charging facility for cellphones and other mobile devices.

Michael Tsegaye/Little Sun

Another humanitarian project involves Little Sun, a solar-powered lamp designed by the artist Olafur Eliasson and the engineer Frederik Ottesen.

“The staple dish in Ghana is banku, a starchy mass of corn or cassava dough, and luckily it suited our stove,” Mr. Cedar recalled. “Where we got stuck in India was with flat breads, which need a very hot, very diffuse flame. When people saw the stove, they were like: ‘Oh no, no, no.”’

There was a simple solution: designing different tops for the stove to suit the cooking requirements of various regions. But other problems have proved less tractable in the five years that Mr. Cedar and Mr. Drummond have been developing the BioLite home stove as a safer, less expensive means of cooking for the three billion people throughout the world who cook on open fires.

Mr. Cedar, 31, and Mr. Drummond, 53, are among the growing number of designers who are applying their skills and entrepreneurial zeal to empower the billions of people who lack basic products and services. Developing a cheaper, cleaner method of cooking could make a dramatic difference to many lives. As well as curbing the environmental damage caused by fumes from indoor cooking fires, it promises to reduce the 1.9 million premature deaths linked to them each year. It could also spare people, mostly women and girls, from spending several hours a day collecting fuel, rather than working or studying. Finally, the BioLite stove includes a charging facility, which should save time and money for the millions of people whose homes are located outside electricity grids and who have to walk long distances — and pay hefty fees — to charge their cellphones.

Past attempts by designers to tackle such issues have faltered, often because the products were impractical or not appealing enough to persuade their new owners to use them regularly or to look after them properly. Other stoves were neither as energy efficient nor as reliable as their designers had hoped, or were introduced to developing countries without viable strategies to repair and dispose of them responsibly.

“There is a lot of history in this field, and not all of it is positive,” Mr. Cedar acknowledged. “But we can learn from it.” If BioLite is to succeed, it must find sustainable solutions to the problems. Other recently announced humanitarian design projects face similar challenges, including Little Sun, a solar-powered lamp designed by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and the Danish engineer Frederik Ottesen as an alternative to dirty, smelly, kerosene lighting.

BioLite’s designers, whose design-studio-cum-testing center is in an airy loft in Brooklyn, have had the benefit of time to refine their stove and to finesse the distribution, marketing and maintenance systems that some humanitarian design ventures have neglected.

Mr. Cedar and Mr. Drummond started to develop a zero-emissions wood-burning stove, initially to be used for camping, five years ago when they were employed by Smart Design, a New York design consultancy. They worked on it in their spare time, although Smart allowed them to use its resources. Not until they entered their design in a “clean stove” competition, which it won, did they realize that it could be adapted for use in off-grid communities in developing countries, where it would have far greater impact.

The technological key to their design is a thermoelectric device, which converts the heat produced by burning wood or other organic fuel into electricity. Most of the electricity powers a fan that makes the stove more efficient, thereby saving fuel. The rest can be used to charge portable devices like cellphones and L.E.D. lights. Typically, it takes 20 minutes of charging to produce an hour of talking time on a phone.

By 2009, both Mr. Cedar and Mr. Drummond had left Smart Design and were focusing on developing the cooking stove. By early last year, they had secured $1.8 million of investment. Combined with the income generated by selling a smaller camping version of the stove, which was introduced this month, they expect to have enough funding to complete the project.

After the initial tests in Ghana and India, they started production of 10,000 stoves to be used in advanced trials. The products are manufactured in China by a company they worked with at Smart. “We spend a lot of time there, not just with the management but with the guys on the line,” Mr. Cedar said. “And we’ve seen for ourselves that the working conditions are up to best practice.”

BioLite intends to sell the stoves for $40 each and to entrust local distributors with sales and maintenance. “If people buy a product, they are more likely to value it than if it is given to them,” Mr. Cedar said. “Some of the failures in this field did not treat their users as consumers. They gave them ugly metal boxes and told them they’d be useful, rather than working out what they wanted or needed, and making the products seem aspirational.”

BioLite hopes to resolve such issues in the advanced trials. One will experiment with different ways of marketing the stove in eastern India. Another will test payment packages in East Africa, including subsiding the purchase price with carbon credits. A third trial will analyze the prenatal health benefits of the stoves in Ghana. If all goes well, mass production will begin in the autumn.

“Our goal is to sell a million stoves within five years,” Mr. Cedar said. “Then we want to become the go-to source for energy solutions in off-grid markets for refrigeration, lighting and clean water. But first, we need to get the stove right, so it delivers the health and economic benefits, and doesn’t end up sitting unused in a corner.”

U.S. Inches Toward Goal of Energy Independence

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

An Apache Corporation well near Hobbs, N.M. Apache is drilling in the Permian Basin, an oil field once thought played out. More Photos »

MIDLAND, Tex. — The desolate stretch of West Texas desert known as the Permian Basin is still the lonely domain of scurrying roadrunners by day and howling coyotes by night. But the roar of scores of new oil rigs and the distinctive acrid fumes of drilling equipment are unmistakable signs that crude is gushing again.

The Energy Rush

Drilling More and Using Less

And not just here. Across the country, the oil and gas industry is vastly increasing production, reversing two decades of decline. Using new technology and spurred by rising oil prices since the mid-2000s, the industry is extracting millions of barrels more a week, from the deepest waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the prairies of North Dakota.

At the same time, Americans are pumping significantly less gasoline. While that is partly a result of therecession and higher gasoline prices, people are also driving fewer miles and replacing older cars with more fuel-efficient vehicles at a greater clip, federal data show.

Taken together, the increasing production and declining consumption have unexpectedly brought the United States markedly closer to a goal that has tantalized presidents since Richard Nixon: independence from foreign energy sources, a milestone that could reconfigure American foreign policy, the economy and more. In 2011, the country imported just 45 percent of the liquid fuels it used, down from a record high of 60 percent in 2005.

“There is no question that many national security policy makers will believe they have much more flexibility and will think about the world differently if the United States is importing a lot less oil,” said Michael A. Levi, an energy and environmental senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “For decades, consumption rose, production fell and imports increased, and now every one of those trends is going the other way.”

How the country made this turnabout is a story of industry-friendly policies started by President Bush and largely continued by President Obama — many over the objections of environmental advocates — as well as technological advances that have allowed the extraction of oil and gas once considered too difficult and too expensive to reach. But mainly it is a story of the complex economics of energy, which sometimes seems to operate by its own rules of supply and demand.

With gasoline prices now approaching record highs and politicians mud-wrestling about the causes and solutions, the effects of the longer-term rise in production can be difficult to see.

Simple economics suggests that if the nation is producing more energy, prices should be falling. But crude oil — and gasoline and diesel made from it — are global commodities whose prices are affected by factors around the world. Supply disruptions in Africa, the political standoff with Iran and rising demand from a recovering world economy all are contributing to the current spike in global oil prices, offsetting the impact of the increased domestic supply.

But the domestic trends are unmistakable. Not only has the United States reduced oil imports from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than 20 percent in the last three years, it has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline for the first time since the Truman presidency. Thenatural gas industry, which less than a decade ago feared running out of domestic gas, is suddenly dealing with a glut so vast that import facilities are applying for licenses to export gas to Europe and Asia.

National oil production, which declined steadily to 4.95 million barrels a day in 2008 from 9.6 million in 1970, has risen over the last four years to nearly 5.7 million barrels a day. The Energy Department projects that daily output could reach nearly seven million barrels by 2020. Some experts think it could eventually hit 10 million barrels — which would put the United States in the same league as Saudi Arabia.

This surge is hardly without consequences. Some areas of intense drilling activity, including northeastern Utah and central Wyoming, have experienced air quality problems. The drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which uses highly pressurized water, sand and chemical lubricants that help force more oil and gas from rock formations, has also been blamed for wastewater problems. Wildlife experts also warn that expanded drilling is threatening habitats of rare or endangered species.

Greater energy independence is “a prize that has long been eyed by oil insiders and policy strategists that can bring many economic and national security benefits,” said Jay Hakes, a senior official at the Energy Department during the Clinton administration. “But we will have to work through the environmental issues, which are a definite challenge.”

The increased production of fossil fuels is a far cry from the energy plans President Obama articulated as a candidate in 2008. Then, he promoted policies to help combat global warming, including vast investments in renewable energy and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions that would have discouraged the use of fossil fuels.

More recently, with gasoline prices rising and another election looming, Mr. Obama has struck a different chord. He has opened new federal lands and waters to drilling, trumpeted increases in oil and gas production and de-emphasized the challenges of climate change. On Thursday, he said he supported expedited construction of the southern portion of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.

Mr. Obama’s current policy has alarmed many environmental advocates who say he has failed to adequately address the environmental threats of expanded drilling and the use of fossil fuels. He also has not silenced critics, including Republicans and oil executives, who accuse him of preventing drilling on millions of acres off the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and on federal land, unduly delaying the decision on the full Keystone project and diverting scarce federal resources to pie-in-the-sky alternative energy programs.

Just as the production increase was largely driven by rising oil prices, the trend could reverse if the global economy were to slow. Even so, much of the industry is thrilled at the prospects.

“To not be concerned with where our oil is going to come from is probably the biggest home run for the country in a hundred years,” said Scott D. Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, which is operating in West Texas. “It sort of reminds me of the industrial revolution in coal, which allowed us to have some of the cheapest energy in the world and drove our economy in the late 1800s and 1900s.”

The Foundation Is Laid

For as long as roughnecks have worked the Permian Basin — made famous during World War II as the fuel pump that powered the Allies — they have mostly focused on relatively shallow zones of easily accessible, oil-soaked sandstone and silt. But after 80 years of pumping, those regions were running dry.

So in 2003, Jim Henry, a West Texas oilman, tried a bold experiment. Borrowing an idea from a fellow engineer, his team at Henry Petroleum drilled deep into a hard limestone formation using a refinement of fracking. By blasting millions of gallons of water into the limestone, they created tiny fissures that allowed oil to break free, a technique that had previously been successful in extracting gas from shale.

The test produced 150 barrels of oil a day, three times more than normal. “We knew we had the biggest discovery in over 50 years in the Permian Basin,” Mr. Henry recalled.

There was just one problem: At $30 a barrel, the price of oil was about half of what was needed to make drilling that deep really profitable.

So the renaissance of the Permian — and the domestic oil industry — would have to wait.

But the drillers in Texas had important allies in Washington. President Bush grew up in Midland and spent 11 years as a West Texas oilman, albeit without much success, before entering politics. Vice President Dick Cheney had been chief executive of the oil field contractor Halliburton. The Bush administration worked from the start on finding ways to unlock the nation’s energy reserves and reverse decades of declining output, with Mr. Cheney leading a White House energy task force that met in secret with top oil executives.

“Ramping up production was a high priority,” said Gale Norton, a member of the task force and the secretary of the Interior at the time. “We hated being at the mercy of other countries, and we were determined to change that.”

The task force’s work helped produce the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which set rules that contributed to the current surge. It prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act, eliminating a potential impediment to wide use of the technique. The legislation also offered the industry billions of dollars in new tax breaks to help independent producers recoup some drilling costs even when a well came up dry.

Separately, the Interior Department was granted the power to issue drilling permits on millions of acres of federal lands without extensive environmental impact studies for individual projects, addressing industry complaints about the glacial pace of approvals. That new power has been used at least 8,400 times, mostly in Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, representing a quarter of all permits issued on federal land in the last six federal fiscal years.

The Bush administration also opened large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico and the waters off Alaska to exploration, granting lease deals that required companies to pay only a tiny share of their profits to the government.

These measures primed the pump for the burst in drilling that began once oil prices started rising sharply in 2005 and 2006. With the world economy humming — and China, India and other developing nations posting astonishing growth — demand for oil began outpacing the easily accessible supplies.

By 2008, daily global oil consumption surged to 86 million barrels, up nearly 20 percent from the decade before. In July of that year, the price of oil reached its highest level since World War II, topping $145 a barrel (equivalent to more than $151 a barrel in today’s dollars).

Oil reserves once too difficult and expensive to extract — including Mr. Henry’s limestone fields — had become more attractive.

If money was the motivation, fracking became the favored means of extraction.

While fracking itself had been around for years, natural gas drillers in the 1980s and 1990s began combining high-pressure fracking with drilling wells horizontally, not just vertically. They found it unlocked gas from layers of shale previously seen as near worthless.

By 2001, fracking took off around Fort Worth and Dallas, eventually reaching under schools, airports and inner-city neighborhoods. Companies began buying drilling rights across vast shale fields in a variety of states. By 2008, the country was awash in natural gas.

Fracking for oil, which is made of larger molecules than natural gas, took longer to develop. But eventually, it opened new oil fields in North Dakota, South Texas, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado and, most recently, Ohio.

Meanwhile, technological advances were making deeper oil drilling possible in the Gulf of Mexico. New imaging and seismic technology allowed engineers to predict the location and size of reservoirs once obscured by thick layers of salt. And drill bits made of superstrong alloys were developed to withstand the hot temperatures and high pressures deep under the seabed.

As the industry’s confidence — and profits — grew, so did criticism. Amid concerns about global warming and gasoline prices that averaged a record $4.11 a gallon in July 2008 ($4.30 in today’s dollars), President Obama campaigned on a pledge to shift toward renewable energy and away from fossil fuels.

His administration initially canceled some oil and gas leases on federal land awarded during the Bush administration and required more environmental review. But in a world where crucial oil suppliers like Venezuela and Libya were unstable and high energy prices could be a drag on a weak economy, he soon acted to promote more drilling. Despite a drilling hiatus after the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 rig workers and spilled millions of barrels of crude oil into the ocean, he has proposed expansion of oil production both on land and offshore. He is now moving toward approving drilling off the coast of Alaska.

“Our dependence on foreign oil is down because of policies put in place by our administration, but also our predecessor’s administration,” Mr. Obama said during a campaign appearance in March, a few weeks after opening 38 million more acres in the gulf for oil and gas exploration. “And whoever succeeds me is going to have to keep it up.”

An American Oil Boom

The last time the Permian Basin oil fields enjoyed a boom — nearly three decades ago — Rolls-Royce opened a showroom in the desert, Champagne was poured from cowboy boots, and the local airport could not accommodate all the Learjets taking off for Las Vegas on weekends.

But when crude prices fell in the mid-1980s, oil companies pulled out and the Rolls dealership was replaced by a tortilla factory. The only thriving business was done by bankruptcy lawyers and auctioneers helping to unload used Ferraris, empty homes and useless rigs.

“One day we were rolling in oil,” recalled Jim Foreman, the general manager of the Midland BMW dealership, “and the next day geologists were flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”

The burger-flipping days are definitely over. Today, more than 475 rigs — roughly a quarter of all rigs operating in the United States — are smashing through tight rocks across the Permian in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Those areas are already producing nearly a million barrels a day, or 17 percent more than two years ago. By decade’s end, that daily total could easily double, oil executives say, roughly equaling the total output of Nigeria.

“We’re having a revolution,” said G. Steven Farris, chief executive of Apache Corporation, one of the basin’s most active producers. “And we’re just scratching the surface.”

It is a revolution that is returning investments to the United States. Over several decades, Pioneer Natural Resources had taken roughly $1 billion earned in Texas oil fields and drilled in Africa, South America and elsewhere. But in the last five years, the company sold $2 billion of overseas assets and reinvested in Texas shale fields.

“Political risk was increasing internationally,” said Mr. Sheffield, Pioneer’s chief executive, and domestically, he was encouraged to see “the shale technology progressing.”

Pioneer’s rising fortunes can be seen on a 10,000-acre field known as the Giddings Estate, a forsaken stretch inhabited by straggly coyotes, rabbits, rattlesnakes and cows that forage for grass between the sagebrush. When Pioneer bought it in 2005, the field’s hundred mostly broken-down wells were producing a total of 50 barrels a day. “It was a diamond in the rough,” said Robert Hillger, who manages it for Pioneer.

Mr. Hillger and his colleagues have brought an array of new tools to bear at Giddings. Computer programs simulate well designs, minimizing trial and error. Advanced fiber optics allow senior engineers and geologists at headquarters more than 300 miles away to monitor progress and remotely direct the drill bit. Subterranean microphones help identify fissures in the rock to plan subsequent drilling.

Today, the Giddings field is pumping 7,000 barrels a day, and Pioneer expects to hit 25,000 barrels a day by 2017.

The newfound wealth is spreading beyond the fields. In nearby towns, petroleum companies are buying so many pickup trucks that dealers are leasing parking lots the size of city blocks to stock their inventory. Housing is in such short supply that drillers are importing contractors from Houston and hotels are leased out before they are even built.

Two new office buildings are going up in Midland, a city of just over 110,000 people, the first in 30 years, while the total value of downtown real estate has jumped 50 percent since 2008. With virtually no unemployment, restaurants cannot find enough servers. Local truck drivers are making six-figure salaries.

“Anybody who comes in with a driver’s license and a Social Securitycard, I’ll give him a chance,” said Rusty Allred, owner of Rusty’s Oilfield Service Company.

If there is a loser in this boom, it is the environment. Water experts say aquifers in the desert area could run dry if fracking continues expanding, and oil executives concede they need to reduce water consumption. Yet environmental concerns, from polluted air to greenhouse gas emissions, have gained little traction in the Permian Basin or other outposts of the energy expansion.

On the front lines in opposition is Jay Lininger, a 36-year-old ecologist who drives through the Permian in an old Toyota Tacoma with a hard hat tilted on his head and a federal land map at the ready.

A former national park firefighter, he says he is now battling a wildfire of a different sort — the oil industry.

Nationally, environmentalists have challenged drilling with mixed results. Efforts to stop or slow fracking have succeeded in New York State and some localities in other states, but it is spreading across the country.

In the Permian, Mr. Lininger said, few people openly object to the foul-smelling air of the oil fields. Ranchers are more than happy to sell what water they have to the oil companies for fracking.

Mr. Lininger and his group are trying to slow the expansion of drilling by appealing to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to protect several animal species, including the five-inch dunes sagebrush lizard.

“It’s a pathetic little lizard in an ugly desert, but life needs to be protected,” he said. “Every day we burn fossil fuel makes it harder for our planet to recover from our energy addiction.”

Mr. Lininger said the oil and ranching industries had already destroyed or fragmented 40 percent of the lizard’s habitat, and 60 percent of what is left is under lease for oil and gas development.

The wildlife agency proposed listing the lizard as endangered in 2010 and was expected to decide last December, but Congressional representatives from the oil patch won a delay. Oil companies are working on a voluntary program to locate new drilling so it will not disturb the lizard habitat.

But for Mr. Lininger’s group, the Center for Biological Diversity, that is far from sufficient.

Brendan Cummings, senior counsel of the center, said protecting the lizard was part of a broader effort to keep drilling from harming animals, including polar bears, walruses and bowhead whales in the Alaskan Arctic and dwarf sea horses and sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico.

“When you are dealing with fossil fuels, things will always go wrong,” Mr. Cummings said. “There will always be spills, there will always be pollution. Those impacts compound the fragmentation that occurs and render these habitats into sacrifice areas.”

A Turn Toward Efficiency

If the Permian Basin exemplifies the rise in production, car-obsessed San Diego is a prime example of the other big factor in the decline in the nation’s reliance on foreign oil.

Just since 2007, consumption of all liquid fuels in the United States, including diesel, jet fuel and heating oil, has dropped by about 9 percent, according to the Energy Department. Gasoline use fell 6 to 12 percent, estimated Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.

Although Southern California’s love affair with muscle cars and the open road persists, driving habits have changed in subtle but important ways.

Take Tory Girten, who works as an emergency medical technician and part-time lifeguard in the San Diego area. He switched from driving a Ford minivan to a decidedly smaller and more fuel-efficient Dodge Caliber. Fed up with high gasoline prices, he also moved twice recently to be closer to the city center, cutting his daily commute considerably — a hint of the shift taking place in certain metropolitan areas as city centers become more popular while growth in far-out suburbs slows.

“I would rather pay a little more monthly for rent than for just filling up my tank with gas,” he said, after pulling into a local gas station to fill up.

Mr. Girten is one of millions of Americans who have downsized. S.U.V.’s accounted for 18 percent of new-car sales in 2002, but only 7 percent in 2010.

The surge in gasoline prices nationwide — they are already at a record level for this time of year — has contributed to the shift toward more fuel-efficient cars. But a bigger factor is rising federal fuel economy standards. After a long freeze, the miles-per-gallon mandate has been increased several times in recent years, with the Obama administration now pushing automakers to hit 54.5 m.p.g. by 2025.

As Americans replace their older cars — they have bought an average of 1.25 million new cars and light trucks a month this year — new technologies mean they usually end up with a more efficient vehicle, even if they buy a model of similar size and power.

California has long pushed further and faster toward efficiency than the rest of the country. It has combated often severe air pollution by mandating cleaner-burning cars, including all-electric vehicles, and prodded Washington to increase the fuel efficiency standards.

Thousands of school buses, trash trucks, tractor-trailers and street sweepers and public transit buses in the state run on natural gas, which is cheaper than gasoline and burns more cleanly. That switch cuts the consumption of foreign oil, as does the corn-based ethanol that is now mixed into gasoline as a result of federal mandates.

Longer-term social and economic factors are also reducing miles driven — like the rise in Internet shopping and telecommuting and the tendency of baby boomers to drive less as they age. The recession has also contributed, as job losses have meant fewer daily commutes and falling home prices have allowed some people to afford to move closer to work.

The trend of lower consumption, when combined with higher energy production, has profound implications, said Bill White, former deputy energy secretary in the Clinton administration and former mayor of Houston.

“Energy independence has always been a race between depletion and technologies to produce more and use energy more efficiently,” he said. “Depletion was winning for decades, and now technology is starting to overtake its lead.”


Clifford Krauss reported from Midland, Tex., and Houston and Eric Lipton reported from Washington and San Diego. John M. Broder contributed reporting from Washington.