Analysis: EID Takes A Deep Dive Into Recent Misleading PFAS Reports

There has been much discussion for more than a decade about the chemical additives used in hydraulic fracturing fluid and the disclosures associated with these chemicals. On both fronts, the natural gas and oil industry has consistently delivered in the name of transparency and accountability.

Even so, every few years, a familiar group of activists repurpose old data and rehash claims to create unfounded alarm about completions operations. Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a group that vocally opposes fracking, published a series of state-by-state reports in recent years in which it makes sensationalistic and misleading claims about the possibility of undisclosed per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in hydraulic fracturing solutions.

Here’s what you need to know about PSR’s recent claims about fracking and PFAS – more commonly referred to as “forever chemicals:”

Key Findings  

  • The U.S. oil and gas industry is highly regulated at the federal and state level, which includes chemical disclosure requirements. Twenty-eight states currently have chemical disclosure laws.
  • PFAS have not been used in the majority of oil and natural gas wells in the states PSR has analyzed.
  • While PSR claims that any mention of proprietary information could be PFAS, the available records across the country show this is unlikely.
  • Disclosing a chemical as proprietary is a common business practice across industries and sectors but fracking additives labeled proprietary trade secrets are still disclosed to key parties, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state environmental agencies, first responders, and medical staff upon request.

What’s in the Reports? 

PSR has found very limited evidence of companies using PFAS in fracking fluid solutions in any of the states they’ve investigated over the last decade. Take the group’s September 2022 Ohio report for example. PSR claimed PFAS – more specifically polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) – had been used in 101 wells across eight counties from 2013 to 2022, according to publicly available data sourced from the chemical disclosure database FracFocus. For perspective, a quick search of reveals there are 2,896 individual disclosures in the database for January 2013 through August 2022, meaning PSR found PTFE to have been used in about three percent of the disclosures available. Ninety-seven percent of wells in the state did not turn up any evidence of having used the chemical.

Rather than report the fact that PTFE has rarely been used in oil and natural gas development, PSR instead claims that any well operator that disclosed use of a proprietary or “trade secret” chemical could be using PFAS, and therefore, it’s likely that extensive use of PFAS has gone unreported. PSR makes this claim despite there being no evidence that the proprietary chemical in question is PFAS.

This misleading claim is repeated in all of PSR’s state reports. The reports’ authors use nonconclusive language like “may,” “possibly,” and “could” to make serious assertions that aren’t backed by sound data.

In one report, the authors cite a toxicologist who warned “that if PFAS were to enter drinking water, it could subsequently volatilize or become airborne inside homes.” The cited example is a hypothetical scenario – and an outlandish one, at that, since experts broadly agree that fracking has not caused widespread, systemic impacts to groundwater. But that doesn’t stop PSR from using hypothetical situations to justify solving imaginary problems.

In PSR’s Pennsylvania report, the authors do just that, arguing that “oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania deserve scrutiny as a possible source of PFAS contamination.” This is despite only finding instances of PTFE being used in eight wells since 2013 out of more than 8,200 disclosure forms for the Commonwealth. More than 99 percent of wells in Pennsylvania included in the FracFocus database have not used PFAS in completions operations.

Despite the legitimate commercial reason for protecting companies’ proprietary information, and the guardrails in place to make sure these additives are safely and appropriately used, PSR’s sensationalized reports are targeted at renewing momentum for repeatedly failed attempts to get federal legislation passed that is aimed at closing nonexistent “loopholes” in hydraulic fracturing regulations.

Bottom Line: Activist calls surrounding PFAS are often hypocritical, exaggeratory, and distort the evidence. The fact is: oil and gas development is being done safely and responsibly – with decades of evidence to prove it.

Read EID’s new analysis, “Breaking Down PSR’s PFAS Reports” here.

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