By Judith Kohler
The Denver Post
Long-lasting chemicals with links to cancers and other ailments have been used in Colorado to frack oil and gas wells, a national health and environmental organization says in a new report.
Physicians for Social Responsibility said an analysis shows that a class of chemicals called PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” were used in nearly 300 oil and gas wells in the state and might have been used in many more over the past decade.
Besides fracking, the report said the chemicals were used in enhanced oil recovery techniques to extract oil later in a well’s life.
Dusty Horwitt, author of “Fracking with ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Colorado,” said in a call Wednesday with reporters that PSR worked with an independent data scientist to analyze the chemicals reported by oil and gas companies on the Frac-Focus. The database is a national registry managed by two associations of state officials.
Of 12,000 Colorado wells whose fracking chemicals were listed as trade secrets on Frac-Focus from 2011 to 2021, more than 3,200 used “surfactants,” according to the report. Horwitt said the substances could have been fluorosurfactants, in the PFAS family and used in fracking in other states.
The use of the chemicals in Colorado could stretch back even further, Horwitt said. A 2008 article in The Open Petroleum Engineering Journal refers to flurosurfactants used in a Moffat County well to speed up the flow of oil.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure underground to open fissures, making it easier for the oil and gas to flow. Colorado has about 49,850 active oil and gas wells.
“The amount of chemicals in the fracking fluid is typically very small, 1% or less of the fluid,” Horwitt said. “But some of these chemicals can be so toxic that even very small amounts can contaminate large amounts of drinking water and could make people sick if people were exposed.”
Cracks or gaps in the concrete casing the hole used to drill a well can result in fracking fluids migrating to underground water, Horwitt said. Wastewater brought up to the surface might contain the chemicals.
“The potential that people could be exposed and become sick is real,” Horwitt said, noting that wells are increasingly being drilled near homes and schools.
The PFAS chemicals — per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances — have been widely used for decades by all kinds of industries for their ability to repel water and resist heat, stains and grease. The chemicals are used in firefighting foam, food packaging, waterproof coats and carpets.
The synthesized substances are called “forever chemicals” because they last a long time in the environment. Horwitt said although a lack of information makes it difficult to know why the chemicals are used in drilling, he said it’s likely that they reduce friction in fracking and make it easier for the oil and gas to flow.
The Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that PFAS levels in drinking water not exceed 70 parts per trillion, but there are few restrictions on their use, said Sonya Lunder, the Boulder-based senior toxics policy adviser for the Sierra Club.
While new EPA Administrator Michael Regan has said he’ll “use every tool in the toolbox to regulate PFAS,” Lunder expects it to be years before safeguards are put in place.
Flying under the radar
A 2021 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility said PFAS had been used in 1,200 oil and gas wells in six states: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Okla-homa, New Mexico and Wyoming. Because some states don’t require companies to list the chemicals they use on FracFocus, the organization said the use of PFAS is likely far more widespread than the database indicates.
Colorado requires companies to post information on the chemical registry. However, like several other states, it allows companies to designate some substances as trade secrets.
The director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission can reject a request to keep the chemicals’ makeup secret and can require the information to protect public health and the environment.
“The COGCC is taking a serious look at how this emerging issue may relate to oil and gas operations,” spokeswoman Megan Castle said in an email.
The state Water Quality Control Division isn’t aware of any impact to drinking water from PFAS potentially used in fracking, spokeswoman Erin Garcia said. The division sampled 400 water systems in 2020 for PFAS and none of the water tested above the federal advisory level, she said in an email.
Companies that perform hydraulic fracturing invest time and money to develop processes and materials and the formulas they use give them a competitive edge, said Lynn Granger, executive director of American Petroleum Institute-Colorado.
Protecting the trade secrets provides incentives for companies to invest in research and develop new products, including those that use less fresh water and more environmentally benign substances, Granger said in an email.
Lunder said the state has done good work in Colorado to measure PFAS in drinking water by offering its services to local agencies across the state. She said one of the most striking cases of contamination is in the communities of Security-Widefield and Fountain southeast of Colorado Springs.
Military officials tracked the spread of the chemicals from Peterson Air Force Base south to the communities, where public drinking water wells were contaminated.
Lunder said before work by Physicians for Social Responsibility and the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the issue of PFAS chemicals used in drilling was “really flying under our radar.”
“We have this long list of places where we’ve seen PFAS contamination, industries that we know discharge PFAS,” Lunder said. “But this idea that the most potent and toxic chemicals that we’re dealing with nationally are used potentially in the oil and gas industry was actually quite a surprise.”