Independence is prized in the United States like nowhere else on earth.
Americans have celebrated their independence every July 4 since breaking free of England's yoke in the Revolutionary War.
But the U.S., one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, has not been able to meet its own energy needs for more than half a century.
That appears to be changing, though, in light of technological advances that have jump-started a boom in domestic oil and natural gas development.
“Every president since at least Richard Nixon has at least at one time or another declared that their goal was to make the United States energy independent. I and others in the industry snickered at that. It was just impossible,” said Larry Nichols, executive chairman of Devon Energy Corp. “You could look at the energy imports coming in and know that they would go up forever. No one saw that would ever change, despite whatever noble goals were set by that long list of presidents.
“It is truly amazing to me that I stand here today and look at this continent and see that we could make ourselves energy independent. That is something I thought was impossible 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.”
Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon said it is in the country's best interest to become energy independent.
“Energy independence means energy and economic security for our nation. It's breaking OPEC's 40-year stranglehold on our economy. And it's finally having a foreign policy where energy needs no longer determine how we make significant strategic decisions, including when and where we choose to engage in armed conflicts,” he said.
Rayola Dougher, senior economist at the American Petroleum Institute, said some policy changes that favor producers could allow the U.S. to meet its crude oil needs by 2025, generating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenue in the process.
“The math works,” she said. “You can do it in a dozen years.”
But to continue bolstering U.S. oil production, industry officials are seeking policy changes that would lessen regulations facing producers and open new areas for exploration.
Dougher said the industry wants “common sense” rules and regulations that protect the environment without stymieing development.
“Any kind of energy, any kind of development, is disruptive, but we can do it safely,” she said.
Others see the future differently.
“Energy independence is a lofty goal that is probably not achievable for a very long time, if ever,” clean energy consultant Alan Nogee said. “But we can make enormous progress toward energy independence, and greatly increase our energy security in the near term by increasing our energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy resources.”
Nogee, former clean energy program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted polls show Americans overwhelmingly support renewable options such as wind or solar power.
Currently, renewables provide 8 percent of the country's energy, and such options typically are dismissed by oil and natural gas industry officials because of reliability concerns, but Nogee pointed to a recent Department of Energy study that found the U.S. could derive as much as 90 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050.
That study, led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, concluded a reliable electric grid powered by renewable energy can be developed using existing technology, with incremental improvements over time.
“Breakthroughs would be terrific and we should increase funding for research and development, but the fact is that we don't make good use of the technologies that we already have that can help meet our energy needs affordably and cleanly with domestic resources,” Nogee said.
Even though Chesapeake has invested in Sundrop Fuels, a company working to produce “green gasoline” from natural gas and waste plant matter, McClendon insists traditional energy sources are the keys to independence.
“Domestic oil and natural gas will be the foundation of our nation's energy independence,” he said. “The supply is available and it can meet our country's fueling and power needs right now.
Continental Resources Inc. has been at the forefront of America's rebirth as an oil producer. CEO Harold Hamm is certain the U.S. and rest of North America can produce enough oil to make imports unnecessary. Hamm is an adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
U.S. oil imports peaked at more than 60 percent of the country's consumption in 2005, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Imports dipped to 49.3 percent in 2010, making the first time in a decade that the U.S. had reached that threshold. Imports fell to 45 percent in 2011.
“I'm convinced; I am 100 percent sure that we can be energy independent in North America,” Hamm said. “We're estimating in the next 10 years we can be there. It might come sooner than that.
“I didn't think we'd be less than 50 percent imports as quickly as we've gotten here. I thought it would be four or five more years before we reached that.”
CONTRIBUTING: ADAM WILMOTH, ENERGY EDITOR