A new report contended an industrial water pollutant could be in fluid used for hydraulic fracturing as the State of New Mexico made the case the chemical should be considered hazardous waste by the federal government.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or substances that could degrade into PFAS were allegedly found in fracking operations at 1,200 wells in six U.S. states between 2012 and 2020, including New Mexico, per the July 12 study from Physicians for Social Responsibility.
PFAS, also known by environmental activists as “forever chemicals” are byproducts from industrial operations, are toxic to humans and do not break down in the environment, read the report.
The report pointed to wells potentially containing PFAS in New Mexico owned by XTO Energy, Chevron and EOG Resources – three of the state’s biggest oil and gas producers.
They’ve been linked to low birth weights, cancers and impacts to human immune systems, the report read.
While the study did not find PFAS approved by the EPA listed specifically in FracFocus, a database used widely by the industry to self-report fracking chemical use, the group believed many chemicals listed could be PFAS precursors, and said records were unclear and that companies were allowed to use generic terms in their filing to protect “trade secrets.”
“The lack of full disclosure of chemicals used in oil and gas operations raises the potential that PFAS could have been used even more extensively than records indicate, both geographically and in other stages of the oil and gas extraction process, such as drilling, that precede the underground injections known as fracking,” read the study.
PFAS were found in groundwater plumes throughout the U.S., recently at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Holloman and Cannon Air Force bases, the suspected result of emissions from firefighting foam at those facilities.
But the new research indicated oil and gas operations, one of New Mexico’s biggest industries, could also be contributing to its PFAS problem.
“The evidence that people could be unknowingly exposed to these extremely toxic chemicals through oil and gas operations is disturbing,” said Dusty Horwitt, a lead author of the study.
“Considering the terrible history of pollution associated with PFAS, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state governments need to move quickly to ensure that the public knows where these chemicals have been used and is protected from their impacts.”
Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association contended hydraulic fracturing was common technique in oil and gas drilling – the process of pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals underground to break up shale rock and extract oil and natural gas – for years and never resulted in water contamination.
He said wells used for fracking are heavily insulated to prevent chemicals from reaching the water table.
“Fracking has been used in New Mexico for decades and thousands of times without a single case of groundwater contamination, and oil and natural gas producers are committed to safe, science-based practices to ensure the protection of the environment and the integrity of wells and other production facilities,” McEntyre said.
“Every well that is constructed in New Mexico that uses the fracking method is required to have multiple layers of steel and cement and is drilled thousands of feet beneath the surface to protect from leakage or contamination.”
Wells are also frequently tested, he said to ensure operations are safe, and the industry partners heavily with government agencies and other stakeholders to ensure policy is in place to protect the environment while allowing the production of fossil fuels.
In 2011, McEntyre said NMOGA supported new rules adopted by the Oil Conservation Commission to require fluids used in fracking.
“Industry has a long history of partnership with credible organizations like the Groundwater Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission to enhance transparency of oil and gas operations,” he said.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appealed to the EPA in June to list PFAS as hazardous waste, establishing federal regulations to aid her state and others in addressing the pollutant.
Lujan Grisham did not name oil and gas as a cause of PFAS contamination but called on the federal government to push forward policy that would help solve the pollution regardless of its source and create consistency from state to state.
“In the absence of a federal framework, states continue to create a patchwork of regulatory standards for PFAS across the U.S. to address these hazardous chemicals. This leads to inequity in public health and environmental protections,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
“This petition seeks swift EPA action to create a federal framework that will equally protect all communities across the U.S. by declaring PFAS what it is – a hazardous waste under federal law.”
Spokesman for U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-NM) Billy Gribbin said congresswoman supported the EPA’s efforts to address PFAS contamination but argued it was too early to connect the pollutant to oil and gas.
Congress last year in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act provided funding for PFAS research and Gribbin said federal efforts underway should be allowed to come to fruition before such conclusions could be drawn.
“Rep. Herrell believes that trying to connect PFAS contamination to oil and gas development is premature and is being promoted by entities who have a vested interest in stopping oil and gas development,” he said.
“Instead of jumping the gun and putting in place more regulations on chemicals like PFAS, Rep. Herrell wants to give EPA regulations already in place time to be implemented.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.