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Two Saudi Arabias — In The U.S.?

A CBS “60 Minutes” episode this week on the potential for exploitation of America’s shale gas reserves featured the claim by a corporate CEO that the U.S. has twice the resource possessed by Saudi Arabia.  The episode suggested that development of these deep reserves could buy valuable time in the nation’s bid to free itself of reliance on fossil fuel imports and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  But environmental groups say the piece painted too rosy a video, ignoring tradeoffs, including toxic chemical pollution that results from hydraulic fracturing, the technique used to retrieve the gas.

On 60 Minutes, Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon told correspondent Lesley Stahl, “In the last few years, we’ve discovered the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias of oil in the form of natural gas in the United States. Not one, but two.” He minimized any environmental risks.

The episode opened with McClendon’s claim and interviews with “shaleonaires,” sometimes poor landowners suddenly made rich by lease payments for deep natural gas drilling under their property.  Later, the episode explored concerns of adjacent landowners and environmental advocates about impacts ranging from surface noise and odor to the use of water-intensive mixtures to fracture deep rock to get at the resource.  Landowners in Pennsylvania drinking bottled water because of a water well explosion caused by fracturing spoke up in the episode.

In response to the program, the Sierra Club has posted information on its natural gas campaign.  An October blog post by the Club’s CEO, Michael Brune, challenges the industry to explain its opposition to tightening rules to reduce environmental and public health risks from fracking. The industry is complaining about proposed rules in West Virginia and Congressional legislative proposals..

James Kunstler, a fierce proponent of the peak oil hypothesis that supplies of domestic fossil fuels are declining, talk of abundant American reserves is folly, and a failure to redesign communities and infrastructure will lead to a steeply lower standard of living, took apart the story in his weekly blog post.

“What this disgusting episode really shows is how eager the USA is to mount a campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs,” Kunstler writes.

Graphic: #mce_temp_url#.