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Truth or Hype: Deconstructing “Don’t Frack My Mother”

“Don’t Frack My Mother.” That’s the title of a catchy folk song now making the web rounds, written by Beatles scion Sean Lennon and performed by Yoko Ono, Liv Tyler, and assorted other celebrities. The song is intended to send a message to New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who will decide, likely later this month, whether to allow hydraulic fracking for natural gas in his state.

As you can tell from the song title, the celebrities are not in favor of fracking.

The song makes a number of claims about the dangers of fracking … but are they true?

Let’s look at the lyrics (in bold italics)  and the on-screen messages (in bold), and see.

Lyric: Now gather round and listen to my song

On screen type: “Governor Andrew Cuomo is currently deciding whether or not to allow drilling and fracking in New York.”
Definitely true. Cuomo has said his decision will come “in a few weeks.” While Cuomo has criticized pro-fracking lobbyists, he hasn’t given any indication how he’ll decide. Officials have said Cuomo is awaiting the results of a health study that will be published next month by the Geisinger Health Systemin Pennsylvania, which has allowed fracking for more than five years.
About something most of you’d agree is just wrong
“Gas companies have proposed to drill and frack 50,000-100,000 gas wells in New York State.”
Also true. Early regulations in draft form would allow 50,000 wells in New York’s part of the Marcellus shale, the gas-rich area that has already been exploited in Pennsylvania. The number could rise to 100,000 or more over time depending on the areas that would be cleared and the specifics—regions, depths, etc.—that the regulations would allow.
There ain’t no place left on this earth to discover.
A debateable assertion—just check out any issue of National Geographic. But we’ll stay on topic.
On screen: Hydraulic fracking has not been proven to be safe.
This is a thorny statement, because science doesn’t mesh well with the word proof. Nothing is ever “proven.” Even the assertion that cigarettes cause cancer hasn’t been proven, just highly correlated with a strongly suggested link. What’s true is that fracking has produced some eyebrow raising incidents, including traces of fracking fluid showing up in aquifers and reports of people in Pennsylvania and Ohio with such high concentrations of methane that they can light their tap water on fire.

So please don’t frack my mother
Don’t frack my mother
Cause I ain’t got no other
Don’t frack my mother

On screen: 60% of wells leak over time.

This number would be shocking if it were true. But it’s not entirely accurate. The “60 percent” comes from a 2003 study on wells in the Gulf of Mexico based on data from the U.S. Minerals Management Service. In the history of energy development, 2003 was a long time ago, long before fracking became widespread in Pennyslvania. Also, the paper’s 60 percent number refers to wells affected by what’s known as SCP, or sustained casing pressure. Not all cases of SCP result in leaks. And in many of those cases, the leaks were of methane gas, not fracking fluid. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is flammable, but it’s not as evil as the filmmakers make it out to be. Methane is a common byproduct of anaerobic digestion and is found in lot of places, including at landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and of course, in the flatulence of ruminant animals.

You can do anything that you wanna do
But don’t frack my mother
No hold up kid listen if you will
You can’t tell a man where to stick his drill
The cow don’t know what’s good for her udders
So I’m going to frack your mother

Don’t frack my mother
Cause I ain’t got no other
Don’t frack my mother
You can do anything that you wanna do
But don’t frack my mother

Now we can’t afford for this world to get hotter
On screen: The fracking process injects hundreds of toxic chemicals into the Earth at high pressure to free natural gas and oil.

This assertion—about chemicals and pressure—is borderline. The fracking formulas of most companies are proprietary: They share the ingredient list only with the Environmental Proection Agency. But occasionally a company will release its formula. Earlier this year, Halliburton, which fracks in eight states, released a list of some of its fluids’ components. In the main formula called “WaterFrac” are 22 ingredients. Of those, eight have been deemed “hazardous” by outside surveyors, including state environmental regulators and the EPA.

And we can’t afford for polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons in our water
Teratogens, carcinogens enough to make you shudder

The shuddering is up to you, as well as pronouncing that long term. But it is reasonable to be concerned about some of the chemicals found in fracking fluid. In 2011, a Syracuse University researcher found that ingredients like naphthalene, benzene, and acrylamide, which have been shown to lead to cancer and, in other cases, birth defects.

This very point about the effects of fracking is the main focus of the entire debate: Is it safe? Both the industry and activists have produced studies and films showing their point of view. With lots of money at stake, neither side has yet claimed a rhetorical victory. Cuomo will look at how fracking has affected health outside New York’s borders. And then he’ll decide whether he wants to allow it—and the inevitable economic boom that would follow—at home.