Photograph by Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

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Rigs like this one near Stanley, North Dakota, are an increasingly familiar sight in some parts of the United States, where the pace of oil drilling is at a 25-year high.

Photograph by Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Oil Fields Stage “Great Revival,” But No Easing Gas Prices

The shale boom centered in North Dakota lifts U.S. oil production, but the unexpected resurgence won’t lessen petroleum’s cost.

The United States has long been seen as a nation in its twilight as an oil producer, facing a relentless decline that began when President Richard Nixon was in the White House. He and every president since pledged to halt the U.S. slide into greater dependence on foreign oil, but the trend seemed irreversible—until now. Forty-one years later, U.S. oil production is on the rise.

U.S. oil fields yielded an estimated 5.68 million barrels per day in 2011—their highest output since 2003, thanks largely to a surge of new production from shale oil that lies beneath the Great Plains. The rush so far is centered in North Dakota, where oil production has quadrupled since 2005, but drilling is set to spread across the prairie and beyond.

"A 'great revival' in U.S. oil production is taking shape," said Jim Burkhard, managing director of the energy consultancy IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates in testimony last month before a U.S. Senate committee. The resurgence provides the United States a welcome measure of energy security at a time of global economic uncertainty and geopolitical risk, he said.

Yet the U.S. government's own energy analysts and many experts see a limit to this new gusher. The technological advances that have driven the revival—high-volume hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling—can only squeeze so much more crude out of the U.S. landscape, they say. Projections are that U.S. oil production will never again reach the lofty heights of the 1960s, even without environmental concerns slowing development or hampering industry with new costs.