Media, Activist Group Aim to Build a Fracking Straw Man, But Come up Empty On Negative Impacts

There has been much discussion over the last decade about the additives used in hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) fluid and even greater dialogue around the disclosure of them. On both fronts, the industry has delivered in the name of transparency and accountability.

The oil and gas industry has worked alongside the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission to ensure a publicly accessible database is maintained to improve the transparency of our operations. In fact, prior to the majority of oil and gas-producing states requiring this disclosure, a great number of companies were voluntarily reporting their frack fluid solutions on a well-by-well basis at IPAA supported these efforts.

Since reporting on FracFocus has become so commonplace, the conversation on disclosure has evolved – after all, you can’t say in one breath that companies don’t disclose and then in the next criticize what’s being disclosed. Or can you? Well, as we’ve seen in the past at some publications, if you buy ink by the barrel, let’s just say you can do whatever you want, the facts be damned.

Recently, activists have attempted to marry conversations around per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and oil and gas operations, claiming that not only have companies used PFAS in frack solutions but also alluding that this in some way equates to environmental and health impacts from operations.

This week, the New York Times published an article that borrowed heavily from a Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) analysis that did just that, building a story around three chemicals approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 and linking one of them to oil and gas operations – despite finding no evidence of any of them ever being used.

Recall former New York Times’ reporter Ian Urbina’s Drilling Down series that similarly used misleading, inaccurate claims in an attempt to paint a negative image of domestic energy production based on biased, agenda-driven research? Well, here we go again – and spoiler alert – the research is being funded by the same foundation.

Let’s get a few things straight:

Fact 1: There is no record of “fluorinated acrylic alkylamino copolymer” being used in oil and gas activities.

The entire premise of the article and report is that the oil and gas industry is using chemicals (“fluorinated acrylic alkylamino copolymer”) that EPA approved in 2011 that may potentially be classified as PFAS. Except there’s no evidence to support that theory.

In fact, the New York Times builds out its first seven paragraphs describing these chemicals and their potential impacts before finally stating:

“There is no public data that details where the E.P.A.-approved chemicals have been used.”

For clarification, that’s not referring to oil and gas, it’s every application: There’s no record at all of these chemicals ever being used.

Similarly, it took eight pages before PSR acknowledged this factoid as it relates to oil and gas:

“To determine if the chemical known as P-11-0091 had been used in oil and gas operations, PSR searched for “fluorinated acrylic alkylamino copolymer,” the chemical’s generic name, in a publicly available online database of well-by-well fracking chemical disclosure maintained by FracFocus, a nongovernmental organization run by the Groundwater Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission… PSR did not find any uses of “fluorinated acrylic alkylamino copolymer.” (emphasis added)

Despite this important, yet buried, revelation, the article then gets into how the oil and gas industry might have used PFAS in some wells – just not the chemical the author spent seven paragraphs discussing prior. It takes nine more paragraphs before that’s clarified.

Fact 2: There is no evidence that nonionic fluorosurfactant was mishandled, spilled or otherwise improperly used in oil and gas operations.

Since PSR was unable to support its own theory – not that you’d know that without diving deep into the report and press release/NYT article – it expanded its search to include other chemicals that could be potentially classified as PFAS or precursor PFAS.

The most common of these identified was nonionic flourosurfactant, which was used in less than one percent of the more than 175,000 wells registered on FracFocus. It was often used as a portion of the surfactant mixture, which FracFocus explains “reduces the surface tension of treatment fluid in the formation; it also helps improve fluid recovery from the well upon completion.”

Nonionic flourosurfactant is also used in paint, inks and cleaning products, according to Chempointe.

PSR explains in the report that it consulted with several “experts” including Wilma Subra – an activist researcher with a long history of releasing research that’s been highly criticized by state agencies and experts – who determined nonionic flourosurfactant and other lesser used additives are likely PFAS.

Regardless of whether that is accurate or not, and despite attempts to imply otherwise in both the press release/NYT article and report, there’s no evidence that this additive was ever mishandled, spilled or otherwise improperly used in manners that would impact the environment or the health of workers and nearby communities.

If there had been, PSR would have included it, and the fact that the author did not is not only telling, but a testament to how highly regulated the oil and gas industry is.

Fact 3: Following years of analysis, EPA found no “widespread, systemic impacts” from fracking.

Interestingly, PSR cites the EPA’s years-long study on hydraulic fracturing several times within the report, and the New York Times mentions it as well, saying that the EPA found frack fluid could potentially spill or leak into groundwater.

While EPA did say that, neither the report nor press release/NYT article explain that EPA also found this to be extremely rare. After five years of extensive study, EPA found “no widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water sources” and that “the number of identified cases of drinking water contamination is small.”

Fact 4: Research shows oil and gas activities are protective of health.

In order to make the case that the mere use of these additives is problematic, despite the lack of evidence to demonstrate this, both the report and press release/NYT article try to introduce health research into their stories. PSR cites its own annual health compendium that literally includes anything related to health and fracking regardless of the quality of said research, while the New York Times links to two highly criticized pieces of research.

In fact, the first link the New York Times uses presumably for evidence to support its claims is to a researcher, Elaine Hill, that the outlet called out in 2012 for her association with anti-fracking groups and publishing research prior to having it peer-reviewed. The second link is to a researcher, Lisa McKenzie, whose work has been highly criticized by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and who notably said to approach Hill’s research with “extreme caution” in that same 2012 New York Times article.

Health departments and others have been critical of the health-related research around fracking because of the significant limitations around these studies – namely that they don’t take actual measurements, but instead rely on using proximity as a proxy for exposure. When measurements are taken, it’s been found that the pathways for exposure don’t exist: Water is not being contaminated and emissions are below thresholds that would impact public health.

Fact 5: PSR and the report funders have an agenda: shutdown domestic oil and gas development.

Finally, PSR has an agenda, and so does its funders. Considering one of the recommendations on the report is “to prohibit drilling, fracking, and disposal of related wastewater and solid wastes,” this shouldn’t be surprising.

In the acknowledgements, the author thanks the Park Foundation for its generous support. Park has been a long supporter of anti-fracking research and activism. A 2018 Northeast University study found:

“Specific to natural gas fracking, $6.8 million was provided to restrict or ban drilling, $2.1 million to protect drinking water supplies; and $3.9 million for research on health and environmental impacts. To support efforts to ban/restrict fracking, Schmidt ($3.3 million), Hewlett ($1.5 million), Park ($1.1 million), and Heinz ($1 million) were the leading funders. Schmidt gave to a mix of national‐ and state‐based groups. Hewlett gave primarily to the Colorado Conservation Fund ($1.3 million). Park gave primarily to groups working in New York state, and Heinz to groups in Pennsylvania. Relative to protecting drinking water supplies, major funders included Heinz ($1 million) for efforts in Pennsylvania; and Park ($760,000) for work in North Carolina and New York. Major funders of research on fracking’s health and environmental impacts included Heinz ($2.7 million), Park ($780,000), and Schmidt ($390,000). These funds were given to a mix of universities and environmental groups.”


You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that PFAS are part of a controversial discussion right now, but it is an unfair and gross mischaracterization to imply that the oil and gas industry has somehow misused or mishandled the additives used in fracking solutions – PFAS or not.

What both the report and the New York Times article boil down to is a story about energy companies using a legally approved chemical additive in less than one percent of wells drilled since 2012, in the manner they were intended to be used without any evidence of impact. That’s not sexy or headline grabbing, but that’s what this report and so-called “reporting” boil down to.

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