By Michael Gormley
More than 500 chanting and sign-toting supporters and opponents of natural gas drilling through hydrofracking got their say Friday along President Barack Obama’s bus tour route into the Southern Tier, where the debate over whether the state should expand fracking is hottest.
Not in attendance on Obama’s visit to the state University at Binghamton was Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who’ll decide whether to allow fracking. Although a decision on the dicey political issue has been promised for months, Cuomo says he awaits a public health study by his administration.
Cuomo had met Obama in Buffalo on Thursday but didn’t join him in stops through central New York.
Among the crowd were members of New Yorkers Against Fracking, who aimed to sway Obama’s pro-fracking position and influence Cuomo’s decision. The organization feels the process, which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals deep underground to unlock gas deposits, is a threat to the environment and public health.
“We hope to show the president that he needs to look at the science and ban fracking across the nation,” group member John Armstrong said. “Governor Cuomo is no stranger to anti-fracking protests, and we hope he sees momentum building against fracking.”
Julia Walsh, of Frack Action and New Yorkers Against Fracking, said Obama “clearly put politics and gas interests over every-day Americans.”
Their signs referenced Obama’s famous “yes we can” campaign slogan: “Yes, we can ban fracking.”
Neil Vitale, an organic dairy farmer for 45 years with 80 cows in Steuben, was among those along Obama’s route. His farm is 5 miles from Pennsylvania, which allows fracking and has seen it flourish beyond projections, according to a report this month by Bentek, a company that analyzes energy trends.
Vitale said he has two sons who want to continue his business and drilling would help them buy equipment, which is “almost impossible for a small dairy to do anymore.” He said a drilling well on his farm “will secure a family’s finances for a generation, if not more.”
Many other pro-fracking residents of the long economically distressed Southern Tier and groups of business leaders were holding a rally and urging Cuomo to take Obama’s lead. Obama has pushed the hydrofracking of natural gas trapped in deep shale deposits as a way to boost the economy and make the country more independent from energy-producing nations. The relatively recent boom in drilling in other states that share the same shale deposit as New York — Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — has led to jobs and economic gains.
“President Obama’s visit to Binghamton today could have been in celebration of the revival of the Southern Tier,” said Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York. “He has often spoken of the importance of natural gas exploration as being critical to our nation’s environment and economy. Instead, we must join together again and ask the governor to lift the five-year moratorium here in New York. There is no reason for this abusive delay.”
Cuomo met Obama on Thursday in Buffalo for the beginning of the president’s two-day tour but didn’t venture to the Southern Tier, roiled by the fracking issue.
The strongest supporters of what he calls safe drilling for natural gas include the Southern Tier’s powerful Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, a Republican whose district includes the Binghamton area. He is a close ally of Cuomo, who has spent the summer pushing job-creation measures in upstate New York but has focused mostly on tourism.
Libous, who was invited to the event, said if he got a chance to talk to Obama, “I will tell him I’m appreciative of his stance on fracking.”