FARMINGTON — Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici on Monday said the natural gas revolution has dramatically changed the nation's energy outlook.

Domenici, speaking at the San Juan Basin Energy Conference, marveled at the change since the 1970s, when industry leaders and politicians worried about running out of natural gas resources to develop.

That has changed with the advent of horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing, which has opened up previously inaccessible pockets of natural gas.

"We once again find ourselves in an energy-rich country — what a blessing," he said.

Domenici also touched on oil, noting U.S. production has reached 7.5 million barrels per day, the highest rate since 1992.

"This is very good news for our country, and no doubt will be the same for the San Juan Basin and Four Corners area," he said.

Indeed, oil production is on the rise in northwest New Mexico, reaching 1.1 million barrels in 2012. That was a 16.8 percent increase from the previous year and the highest oil production in the area since 2003, according to the state Oil Conservation Division.

The conference drew nearly 500 attendees to San Juan College to hear the latest on energy trends. Discussion focused on the potential for widespread oil development in the Mancos Shale, a geologic layer in the San Juan Basin.

Encana Corp., WPX Energy, ConocoPhillips, Bill Barrett Corp. and other companies are testing the Mancos Shale. Encana has been the most aggressive, drilling ten Mancos Shale wells in 2012 and continuing to explore this year.

Nick Sommer, an Encana geologist based in Farmington, was reluctant to divulge data at a conference presentation. But, he said, certain oil windows in the basin "can be very robust."

"We're committed to testing the basin, but right now it's so early," he said. "We're still drilling and learning."

Domenici related estimates that the Mancos Shale may contain 30 billion barrels of oil, of which perhaps 1.5 billion barrels is recoverable.

"We know now we have the technology to make a run at recovering a huge amount," he said.

Domenici, who was once nicknamed "Petro Pete" by a campaign opponent, served six terms in the Senate from 1973-2009. The senator contributed funding to starting the School of Energy at San Juan College.

Domenici said the energy school — which is expected to open a new building next year — has come a long way.

"It's far, far exceeded anything I thought would happen," he said.

BP America has been a major backer of the school. Darryl Willis, a Houston-based exploration and production executive for BP, said the company has helped train nearly 2,500 workers at San Juan College and has hired more than 30 interns from the School of Energy.

The energy industry will figure out how to develop the Mancos Shale oil play, he said.

"We're optimistic about the potential for liquids, and we're optimistic about the Mancos."

The conference continues Tuesday at San Juan College.

Chuck Slothower may be reached at cslothower@daily-times.com; 505-564-4638. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/DTChuck