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With all this natural gas, who needs oil?

It's home-grown, plentiful, and touted as the best way to wean the US off Mideast oil. But there are limits to how far the US can tilt toward a natural gas economy. 

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"There's only one fuel that can move an 18-wheeler next to diesel, and that's natural gas," says James Harger, Clean Energy's chief marketing officer.

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  • Graphic US shale gas fields
    (Source:US Energy Information Admin./Graphic:Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

Suburban Disposal's savings have been significant. The trash-hauling company operates 110 trucks, seven of which now run on CNG. It is ordering four more. The vehicles cost $1.50 less a gallon to operate than their diesel counterparts. "Our trucks use about 40 gallons a day, so you do the math," says Suburban Disposal's Kerry Roselle. "Every day, it's quite a bit of savings."

Many consumers are switching to natural gas to save money in heating their homes as well. Some 70 million Americans now use the fuel – up from 40 million in 1970. That's more than half the homes in the US.

Yet there is a limit to how far the penetration can go, since not everyone lives near a gas line, and the cost of replacing a furnace or converting an existing boiler can be prohibitive.

Utilities, always eager to use the cheapest fuel to spin their power plant turbines, have been making a more dramatic shift. In just the past three years, the amount of electricity generated by natural gas has jumped from 23 percent to 35 percent. Cambridge Energy Research Associates believes it could double in the next 20 years.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for the nation that we should be poised to take advantage of in a safe, responsible manner," says Ralph Izzo, the chairman and chief executive officer of Public Service Enterprise Group, New Jersey's largest utility, which recently began using more natural gas than coal to fuel its power plants. "We'd be crazy if we took that to the extreme and said, 'Let's leave that precious resource in the ground and continue to rely upon politically unstable nations for our future energy needs.' "

All this demand for natural gas is spurring a drilling boom from North Dakota to northern Pennsylvania. But it's also causing new environmental woes, such as the explosive gases coming out of Sherry Vargson's faucet.

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Daryl Miller stands on the Wyalusing Rocks Overlook, in northern Pennsylvania's rumpled Bradford County, and points to the Susquehanna River and thousands of acres of farmland and forest before him. "Every 3,000 feet west of us there's a well pad that encompasses anywhere from 640 to 1,000 acres of real estate that makes up a drilling unit," says Mr. Miller, a Bradford County commissioner.

Pennsylvania's land has always been oil and methane rich. It's where the world's commercial oil industry was born in 1859, when Col. Edwin Drake bored a well near Oil Creek in Titusville. That sparked the nation's first oil boom, which lasted in Pennsylvania until the beginning of the 20th century. Then the drilling rigs moved south and west to richer fields.

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