In a booming economy, even oil and water can mix.
Chris Duell left his Detroit home at the age of 30 to start a water filtration business in this isolated town just north of the Missouri River.
It was 2008, and more than a mile below the quiet region near the Montana border, dozens of drill bits turned horizontally to burrow into the Bakken shale formation.
The horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology that ignited the Marcellus shale natural gas boom cracked open one of the largest oil fields in the United States. By this spring, barely four years after Williston's boom began in earnest, North Dakota produced more oil than Alaska.
For Duell, a $100,000 investment grew into three businesses worth an estimated $2 million.
"It's an entrepreneur's dream," said Duell, 33.
Surging domestic oil production occurs at an unsettled time for the country's energy landscape. The nuclear industry is restarting a revival stalled by the recession, and renewable energy has undergone swift but highly subsidized growth. Taken together, these developments are changing where, how and at what cost the world's largest economy gets its power.
"This could be a game-changer," Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Corp., said of the increase in recoverable domestic oil and gas. It could have an economic effect on par with "the invention of the semi-conductor. ... It's a big deal."
Proven domestic crude oil reserves rose to their highest level since 1992. A deposit of oil shale -- which can be turned into crude through extensive, expensive processing -- lies under Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
It could contain as much recoverable oil as the rest of the world's proven reserves combined, according to a federal report.
"We no longer have a gun to our head," Augustine said. Newly unlocked reserves provide "time to invest in research to come up with new, clean, sustainable, affordable forms of energy."
Federal subsidies for renewable energy spiked to $14.7 billion in 2010, in part because of $6.2 billion from the stimulus bill, according to the Energy Information Agency. That compares with subsidies of $2.8 billion for natural gas and petroleum, $2.5 billion for nuclear, and $1.4 billion for coal that year. In 2007, renewable energy subsidies totaled just more than $5 billion.
The money helped double the amount of electricity that wind and solar generate, and that production cut the cost of wind turbines and solar arrays in half over the past two years, said Dave Danielson, the Department of Energy's assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Danielson estimated solar and wind energy will compete with fossil and nuclear power without federal subsidies in five or 10 years.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney criticized those subsidies as taxpayer giveaways to private companies. Romney's energy policy says solar and wind "remain sharply uncompetitive on their own" and would end the subsidies.
Industry analysts predict foreign governments will continue spending on renewable energy technology.
"The United States can either step up, invest in this now, take advantage of our competitive advantage in innovation and entrepreneurship, and come out in the next five to 10 years as the leader ... or we can stand on the sidelines and cede global leadership to other countries like China and India and Germany," Danielson said.
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