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IN THE RECENTLY RELEASED FILM PROMISED LAND, MATT DAMON plays a smooth-talking salesman for a natural-gas company who plays down concerns about the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to buy cheap drilling rights from farmers in a depressed area of Pennsylvania. Damon’s character sours on his job when he discovers the actions the company is willing to take to win, but he never really turns against fracking, as the potential bonanza of natural gas may offer the last chance of economic revival for this rural area.

Off the silver screen that message is resounding more than ever. Fracking has reinvigorated the U.S. oil and gas industry and brought the nation’s economy to the cusp of a historic transformation. The drilling technique is extracting massive new supplies of natural gas and sizable amounts of oil from shale rock formations, also known as plays, from Pennsylvania to North Dakota. Energy imports have declined so much over the past six years that the idea of U.S. energy independence — a pipe dream of presidents since the days of Richard Nixon — is suddenly a distinct possibility. The gas revolution also has the potential to spark a broader economic surge, creating millions of jobs and lighting a fuse under U.S. manufacturing.

Cheap, abundant energy generated by fracking will bring a “new American century,” contends Philip Verleger, an economist and former director of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Energy Policy who runs his own energy and commodity consulting firm. He predicts that the U.S. energy boom will create 3 million jobs and boost economic growth by 1 to 1.5 percentage points a year between now and 2020.

“We can clean the clock of competitors who don’t have access to natural gas, and that overrides cheap labor abroad,” says Verleger, who served in the Carter administration. “Our trade deficit may go way down; we’ll have lower-cost energy; the Fed won’t have to tighten monetary policy; the dollar will be more competitive. And it’ll work no matter who is president. We will be energy independent in ten years.”

Verleger’s prediction is certainly ambitious, but there are several obstacles on the path to potential independence. First, the fracking industry must overcome its critics and demonstrate that it can continue to ramp up production without causing serious environmental damage. New York State, home to a potent antifracking movement, has imposed a moratorium on the practice pending review of an environmental study; Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to decide by late this month whether to allow drilling to proceed. Scores of local governments across the country have banned it. Environmental concerns “can influence policymakers and can lead to lower investments and slow things down when we’re trying to generate energy and create jobs,” says John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based trade organization. “There are legitimate issues that have to be properly addressed, especially when fracking is often misrepresented.”