By Rick Karlin
Albany, N.Y. — President Barack Obama stopped at Binghamton University on the second leg of his tour to promote a college affordability plan on Friday, but the demonstrators who lined the president’s motorcade route had something else on their minds:
Hydrofracking in the Southern Tier.
The president shouldn’t have been surprised at the picketers and their banners. By coming to Binghamton, Obama was entering the figurative heart of New York’s gas country, even though the newest hydrofracking techniques have been on hold for the past five years amid a statewide moratorium while the state studies the potential environmental effects of the controversial practice.
With Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration holding off on whether to allow fracking, demonstrators relished the chance on Friday to take their messages to the national stage.
Obama used the town-hall meeting at Binghamton University to discuss rising college costs, but he did take a question from a participant who said he was involved in developing alternative energy sources.
While not mentioning hydrofracking specifically, Obama repeated his belief that “natural gas is transitional,” and with it, “we’re about as close as we can get to energy independence as we’re going to see.”
But the president added, “Climate change is real. The planet is getting warmer, and you’ve got several billion Chinese, Indians, Africans and others who also want cars.”
In the hydrofracking that is in question, high volumes of water, chemicals and sand are used with deep horizontal wells in order to tap underground gas deposits.
New York’s Southern Tier around Binghamton is rich in such so-far untapped resources.
Supporters believe it can help revitalize this depressed region, but supporters fear potential water pollution.
Cuomo says he is awaiting health studies to decide whether it should be allowed.
The issue has roiled New York state for years. Those here on Friday said they would be hard-pressed to miss an opportunity to send a message to the White House.
“Every time the president comes to a place, the press shows up,” said Walter Hang, of the Ithaca-based Toxic Targeting group and one of the organizers of Friday’s anti-fracking demonstration. “It’s an enormous opportunity for public discourse.”
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Like others on both sides of the debate, Hang was aware that Cuomo, who briefly welcomed Obama to New York when his plane landed in Buffalo on Thursday, wasn’t here and wouldn’t be seeing the demonstrators.
But with calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to reopen studies of potential water pollution in Dimock, Pa., and Pavillion, Wyo., Hang said the debate is entering a new phase.
Cuomo’s absence from Friday’s event wasn’t to say that demonstrators were happy with the president, who is supportive of natural gas drilling.
“The poster says it all,” Peter Bianco said of the poster he was carrying, which sported side-by-side photos of former Vice President Dick Cheney and Obama.
The Utica-area vegetable grower said he believes Obama’s support for gas extraction wasn’t a lot different from the Bush-Cheney policies.
Others weren’t as harsh.
“I feel he really cares about people,” said Douglas Vitarius, a retired teacher from Sanford. “But then he has come out on the side of pro-gas development.”
Lots of anti-frackers are Democrats, so their disappointment in Obama’s gas stance may seem counterintuitive. But it wasn’t the only example of the differences at play here.
Gas drilling supporter Vic Furman of Chenango Forks was going to put a large banner along the motorcade route, bearing the message: “Drill a gas well, bring a soldier home,” playing up natural gas’s role in energy independence.
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Speaking near a park outside of the campus where gas supporters planned to put up their signs and banners, Furman said his group, the Joint Landowners Coalition, wasn’t initially planning to demonstrate but decided to after hearing about the anti-frackers’ plans.
Others noted that part of Obama’s trip was to focus on middle-class issues and, they said, gas drilling could create lots of jobs that pay well as it has across the border in Pennsylvania.
Opening up drilling in New York could serve as a “stimulus” plan for upstate, said Bryant La Tourette Sr. of Oxford.
“There was no stimulus package there,” he said, referring to his small rural town and the effort that Obama initiated to jumpstart the economy stung by the recession.