Equilibrium & Sustainability

Use of ‘forever chemicals’ is widespread in New Mexico drilling operations, report finds

Oil and gas companies drilling in New Mexico have been using toxic “forever chemicals” in their extraction processes for the past decade, a new report has found.

Between 2013 and 2022, drilling operations have injected at least 261 New Mexico wells with 9,000 pounds of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) for use in fracking, according to the report, released on Wednesday by Physicians for Social Responsibility.

During the same period, oil and gas companies injected more than 8,200 wells with a total of 243 million pounds of fracking chemicals — likely including PFAS — kept undisclosed due to “trade secret shields,” per the report.

“These ‘forever’ chemicals are far too dangerous to be set loose in the environment like this,” report coauthor Barbara Gottlieb said in a statement. “Once this toxic genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back.”

Known for their propensity to linger in both the body and in the environment, forever chemicals are a group of thousands of compounds — many of which have been linked to cancer and other illnesses.

While known for their presence in jet fuel firefighting foam, nonstick pans, waterproof apparel and cosmetics, PFAS are also common components in oil and drilling operations.

Key to the fracking process is the injection of a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressure to unlock trapped oil and gas, according to a 2021 report from the same group, which unearthed the link between PFAS and fracking in the U.S.

Just two months ago, Physicians for Social Responsibility took a similar look at fracking operations in Texas, where they identified the use of more than 43,000 pounds of PFAS over the past decade.

Fracking chemicals — which sometimes include PFAS, due to their grease-repellant properties — serve to kill bacteria, reduce friction and thicken the fluid so that it can travel farther underground, the 2021 report stated.

Although the use of PFAS in fracking is still widespread, Colorado became the first state to ban the use of these compounds in oil and gas extraction last year.

In New Mexico, however, the authors of Wednesday’s report identified a variety of local barriers that prevent such a step from occurring there.

State law, they explained, allows oil and gas companies to use trade secret designations to withhold the names of certain fracking chemicals from both regulators and the public.

These firms are also not required to disclose any chemicals they inject into wells in the drilling that precedes fracking or during other “downhole” operations, according to the report.

Over the past decade, the report determined that about 9,000 pounds of PFAS were injected into at least 261 oil and gas wells in New Mexico.

Among these sites are 227 wells that contained a total of 2,605 pounds of PTFE, the nonstick compound known as Teflon, the authors found. Another 34 wells had 6,400 pounds of a type of PFAS called fluoroalkyl alcohol substituted polyethylene glycol.

At the same time, a total of 243 million pounds of undisclosed fracking chemicals went into 8,293 wells across the state, according to the report.

Of these wells, 3,681 took in a total of 19.3 million pounds of trade secret surfactants — 24 of which imbibed 966 pounds of fluorosurfactants, a group of chemicals that includes PFAS.

Advocates from Physicians for Social Responsibility said they delivered the report to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) on Wednesday, asking that the state revoke the industry’s exemption from hazardous waste laws. They also demanded an update to chemical disclosure rules. 

“The staggering number of chemical trade secret claims raises the potential that PFAS use is even more widespread than reported,” lead author Dusty Horwitt said in a statement.

The report recommends not only following in the footsteps of Colorado and banning the use of PFAS in oil and gas wells, but also expanding public disclosure requirements.

The authors also called for increased testing and tracking of locations where PFAS has been used in oil and gas operations and where related waste has been deposited.

“New Mexico officials should act immediately to protect the public by prohibiting the use of PFAS in oil and gas extraction and requiring full disclosure of all chemicals used in oil and gas wells,” Horwitt added.

The Hill has reached out both to Grisham’s office and to the New Mexico Environment Department for comments on the report.

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