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Epicentre of the boom: An electric crude oil pumping unit near Williston, North Dakota. Photo: Bloomberg

A few years ago, when you headed from Bismarck in central North Dakota up towards Williston in the state's north-west, it might have seemed you were heading from nowhere to nothing. You would drive on empty roads by the badlands of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and, if you missed the farming town of 14,000, you would hit Canada a few hours later.

Not any more. Williston is at the epicentre of a US oil and gas boom sparked by fracking technology that some economists believe will arrest the US's alleged decline and which the White House believes has already fundamentally altered global geopolitics in the US's favour.

The Wall Street Journal declared the nation to be Saudi America. 

Now the traffic starts to snarl 80 kilometres out of town. The roads are crumbling under the weight of prime movers, construction and drilling vehicles and, when you hit a rail crossing, you can sit for 10 minutes while a laden goods train groans by.

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Natural gas pipes. Photo: Bloomberg

On the rolling fields around town, ''man camps'' have sprung up to house the wildcatters who have flocked in from around the world and the hills are marked by nodding pump jacks and towering drilling rigs boring new holes into the pasture.

The new McDonald's pays a $300 sign-on fee to get workers, according to BusinessWeek and there is a rumour the shelf stackers at the Walmart are making $70,000 a year.

The current estimate is that 33,000 people now live in Williston, though some put the figure as high as 60,000.

''Realistically, no one knows for sure,'' Williston mayor Ward Koeser recently told the Oil Patch Dispatch.

At night, the black expanse is punctuated by hissing gas flares. There is so much gas about these days, and so little infrastructure to move it, that it is more economical at many wells to burn it off.

The source of Williston's new wealth lies a little over three kilometres underground in a formation of layers of shale known as the Bakken that spreads for almost 500,000 square kilometres across North Dakota and South Dakota, west to Montana and north into parts of southern Canada. In and between those layers of shale lie billions of barrels of oil mixed with natural gas, methane and petroleum.

People have been drilling for the stuff for decades but, due to the shale, the wells ran dry. All that changed when a man named George Mitchell worked out how to drill around corners. If you imagine the oil in the layers of shale as the cream in a biscuit, Mitchell, a Texas oilman, perfected a technique of drilling down into the mineral, turning the drill sideways and drilling along the layer of cream. He then worked out how to combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Once the well is drilled, massive amounts of a water and a chemical cocktail are forced into the hole to break the rock and release the minerals.

''Mr Mitchell spent 10 years and $6 million to crack the problem (surely the best-spent development money in the history of gas). Everyone, he said, told him he was just wasting his time and money,'' wrote The Economist last year.

Around Williston, fracking crews are a common sight. Rows of truck-borne generators line up on the well pads to create the massive water pressure needed to fracture the rock and queues of tankers line the roads to truck the chemical cocktail in and out of the drilling sites.

Once the fracking is complete, the crews move on to the next well, a pump jack is installed and the site returns to something like normal but for the oil tankers, flares, nodding jacks, baffled-looking cattle and the broken rock far below releasing its ancient oil and gas.

Fracking and horizontal drilling technology has improved so fast over the past decade that the rush has spread across the Bakken, while formally dormant oilfields in Texas have sprung back to life. Pennsylvania's natural gasfields are booming and new rushes are expected in California, West Virginia and Ohio.

Due to fracking, there is now so much as-yet untapped oil and gas in the US that The Wall Street Journal declared the nation last year to be Saudi America.

In April, President Barack Obama's then national security adviser, Tom Donilon, spoke at the launch of Columbia University's Centre on Global Energy Policy in Manhattan.

He began by noting that it was ''a bit unusual for a national security adviser to address an energy conference like this one'', explaining that energy was ''profoundly'' linked to the US's national security and that the US had reached an ''inflection point'' in its energy development.

''When President Obama took office, the energy picture looked decidedly different than it does today,'' Donilon said. ''Indeed, forecasters said that the US would need to double its imports of liquefied natural gas over the next five years.

''There was renewed talk of 'peak oil'. Nearly every prediction about our energy future made five years ago has been turned on its head. US innovation and technology are allowing us to tap unconventional energy resources.

''In 2005, 60 per cent of US oil was imported. Today, the number is 40 per cent and falling - a dramatic move towards fulfilling the President's goal of cutting our oil imports in half by 2020, while the US had become the top natural-gas producer in the world.''

He noted that the domestic price of natural gas had dropped from over $13 per million British thermal units in 2008 to about $4 today.

According to Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Prize, which was about the energy revolution, the massive slump in energy prices in the US is the first matter raised with him when he attends conferences in Europe and Asia, where gas prices are now up to four times higher.

''European industry is not just concerned, they are alarmed,'' he says.

Yergin estimates that, so far, 1.3 million jobs have been created not only from harnessing the resources but through the resurgence of American manufacturing in energy-intensive industries such as fertiliser and steel.

Yergin, who recently updated his findings in a new book, The Quest, says the US will soon be a significant competitor to Australia in the export of liquefied natural gas.

His analysis is echoed in a recent Deloitte report that projects Australia will soon become the largest LNG exporter in the world but that the US competition will reduce Australian export volumes to Europe by more than 10 per cent. Exports to Asia would be less affected due to proximity to big Asian markets.

A US Government Accountability Office report into the amount of oil underneath Utah and neighbouring states estimates there is about 3 trillion barrels, of which about half is now recoverable with the new technology or, in the words of the report, ''about equal to the entire world's proven oil reserves''.

''In the past 100 years - in all of human history - we have consumed 1 trillion barrels of oil. There are several times that much here,'' Roger Day, vice-president for operations for American Shale Oil, told ABC News.

A report by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government predicted that by 2020 all of the US's oil could be produced domestically or in the western hemisphere, ending the US dependency on the Middle East. In November, the International Energy Agency predicted the US would be energy-independent by 2035.

Already the impacts of the power shift are being felt, say Donilon and Yergin, particularly in efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program.

''The United States engaged in tireless diplomacy to persuade consuming nations to end or significantly reduce their consumption of Iranian oil while emphasising to suppliers the importance of keeping the world oil market stable and well supplied,'' Donilon said in his speech at Columbia.

''The substantial increase in oil production in the United States and elsewhere meant that international sanctions and US and allied efforts could remove over 1 million barrels per day of Iranian oil while minimising the burdens on the rest of the world. And the same dynamic was at work in Libya in 2011 and in Syria today.''

More broadly, Donilon said, it is an ''iron law of history'' that a nation's political and military primacy depends on its economic vitality.

''Our energy boom has proven to be an important driver for our economic recovery - boosting jobs, economic activity and government revenues,'' he said. ''Take the example of North Dakota, where unemployment has dropped to near 3 per cent, the lowest in the country, and the state has a $3.8 billion budget surplus, largely due to increased unconventional gas and oil production in the state.''

In testimony before a congressional committee in February, Yergin said the new energy boom added $62 billion to federal and state government revenues last year, ''a number that we project could rise to about $113 billion by 2020''.

Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, said that ''just a few years ago, most analysts, myself included, were predicting a continuing decline in US oil and gas output, resulting in greater reliance on imported supplies and diminished US geopolitical clout. Now all those predictions seem obsolete.''

He says the boom ''allows Washington to liberate itself from long-standing ties to Middle Eastern oil despots and to adopt a more free-wheeling and assertive stance in world affairs'' and was a factor in the Obama administration's ''pivot'' to Asia, which is contingent upon a partial disengagement with the Middle East.

His optimism about the boom is echoed on Williston's teeming streets, where it can be hard to find people to criticise the oil and gas industry. Many are thrilled to find themselves at the centre of a rush.

''Some say we are making Williston a shithole,'' says one young woman who grew up and left Williston only to return with the boom. ''But Williston was always a shithole, now it is just a bigger shithole with more money.''

But fracking is attracting significant opposition in more heavily populated areas such as Pennsylvania. Concern over fracking in that area has made Gasland and Gasland 2, by filmmaker Josh Fox, among the most prominent documentaries of recent years. The films have been widely praised by critics and cited by anti-fracking activists, though some experts question their science.

Either way, no one disputes that fracking uses vast amounts of water that is necessarily polluted by the process. There is debate over its impact on how water tables are affected by the broken rock and some even argue - without significant evidence so far - that it is to blame for causing earthquakes.

Donilon notes that the US's energy-related greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to 1994 levels partly because of the switch from coal to natural gas in power production facilitated, in part, by fracking but even this is not an unalloyed environmental good. While LNG is cleaner than coal, the methane that can be released by fracking is a terribly potent greenhouse gas, trapping 20 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.

The impact of the fracking revolution on global warming could be catastrophic, argues environmentalist Bill McKibben. ''We need a dramatic shift off carbon-based fuel: coal, oil and also gas,'' he told the Associated Press. ''Natural gas provides, at best, a kind of fad diet, where a dangerously overweight patient loses a few pounds and then their weight stabilises. Instead, we need, at this point, a crash diet.''