Saturday, August 24, 2013

Obama’s upstate tour motivates anti-fracking activists President: ‘Fossil fuels finite. Climate change is real’

Anti-fracking protestors line the motorcade route at Binghamton University
It was tough going for the 400 protesters preparing for Obama’s visit to Binghamton University Friday. They faced traffic from a rush of returning students and a maze of construction barriers, detours, and police blockades. Parking on campus, limited under ideal circumstances, got predictably worse when police closed campus roads at 10 a.m., two and a half hours prior to the arrival of the presidential motorcade.

After getting an early morning start that began with a walk of a mile or more from remote parking spots, with NO FRACKING WAY placards and provisions in hand, the protesters – skewed heavily toward the baby boom generation but also including students -- gathered at a designated spot on the motorcade route in front of the university library. They rallied for hours while waiting for the president’s arrival.  They chanted “Yes We Can,” echoing both the president’s campaign slogan, and their intention to stop fracking. The cheers reverberated across quads and walkways at the center of campus that were mostly empty due to security measures, and the animation of the protesters offered stark contrast to the poised vigilance of police and secret service personnel stationed at every turn.

Behind the scene at the Town Hall meeting
I passed the protesters as I negotiated the series of barriers and yellow tape, hurrying to get to the press check-in at the university union before the cut-off. After getting cleared, I was directed through the press entrance to the venue, where I set up my laptop at a bank of workstations that accommodated about 40 other reporters on the periphery of the action. My view was partially obscured by the risers in front of me, which held cameras for photographers and broadcast outlets. The press pool, easily numbering more than 100, flanked one side of the small hall. The president’s podium was in the middle. Two other sets of risers – opposite and at a right angle to the risers for the press pool -- held students and faculty picked from a lottery. In the remaining space a row of folded chairs directly in front of the president was reserved for local officials and dignitaries.

A few hours later, with everybody in their assigned places, a helicopter churned overhead and the presidential motorcade turned onto campus. As the line of motorcycles with flashing lights, SUVs and a large black bus with the presidential seal made their way up the road, the activists by the library seized their brief moment and shouted and waved banners. Some glimpsed the president standing near the front of the bus, but it was difficult to discern a reaction behind the tinted class. It was over in an instant, and several minutes later, the president made his way into the Union from an unseen entrance.

Video of Obama's town hall meeting at Binghamton

Obama opened the meeting with a short talk about education as the essence of the American Dream. Predictably, he offered no passing mention of the subject that stirred the protest that greeted his arrival, or other protests that had been staged across various points of his two-day tour through upstate New York and Pennsylvania. The questions and answers of the two-hour town hall meeting were themed around equality and access and affordability of the American higher education system. (With due respect to the significance of the educational issues that were the focus of the president’s tour, I will not go into these much here, and leave that worthwhile work to other bloggers and educational beat writers.)

In keeping with the heart of the theme of his second term – working for the middle class -- Obama projected an approachable and informal manner throughout his upstate tour, which included spontaneous stops to greet surprised onlookers at soccer-fields, diners, and cafes. And he kept  up that manner at Binghamton University.  “I’m interested in hearing your stories, getting your questions,” he said. “And this will be a pretty informal affair -- well, as informal as it gets when the President comes -- (to laughter) -- and there are a bunch of cameras everywhere.” After calling on a student in an Obama T-shirt, he advised “here’s a general rule in the presidential town hall:  If you want to get called on, wear the president's face on your shirt.” (The student’s question: How does your administration plan to address the major budget cuts that are happening with Head Start schools around the U.S.? Obama’s answer: As the deficit continues to fall with the economic recovery, he sees more resources for federal funding. But it remains a political fight, and he will fight for worthwhile programs like Head Start.)

Near the end of the meeting, Obama called on a man with something other than education on his mind. His name was Adam Flint, coordinator of a Cooperative Extension program called Broome Energy Leadership Program. Flint began with a bit of context: Fossil fuels might last another generation. And then what? He was worried about his children’s futures, and he was guessing that the president, with adolescent daughters of his own, shared his concern. “Is there any good news for green economy of future?” Flint asked.

Behind that simple question lies a convoluted political dilemma, and the president’s answer reflected this, if little else. On the one hand, Obama said, with record production of domestic fossil fuel “we’ve actually achieved, or are on the verge of achieving about as close as you can get to energy independence as America is going to see.” He notably chose to avoid the word “fracking” – the controversial method of splitting rock with pressurized chemical solutions. This technology, exempt from federal regulations that govern chemicals that go into the ground and waste that comes out of the ground, is largely responsible for prolonging and enabling our fossil fuel-based energy system.

Without mentioning these exemptions, Obama pushed on to the crux of the question: The future. “The bottom line is those (fossil fuels) are still finite resources.  Climate change is real.  The planet is getting warmer.  And you’ve got several billion Chinese, Indians, Africans and others who also want cars, refrigerators, electricity. And as they go through their development cycle, the planet cannot sustain the same kinds of energy use as we have right now.  So we’re going to have to make a shift.”

The shift will require new technology, he said. But immediate improvements can come through conservation measures now within reach that could reduce the country’s energy consumption by 20 percent to 30 percent.  Retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, as well as building new energy-efficient buildings and communities, can create jobs as well as decrease energy dependence. But even a relatively simple approach like this – what Obama called the “low hanging fruit” of the energy question – involves a problem. The problem is rooted deeply in prevailing influence of Big Energy on Capitol Hill, and ideological factors that “tend not to be particularly sympathetic to alternative energy strategies,” Obama said.

“In some cases, we’ve actually been criticized that it’s a socialist plot that’s restricting your freedom for us to encourage energy-efficient light bulbs, for example.  I never understood that.  But you hear those arguments.  I mean, you can go on the Web, and people will be decrying how simple stuff that we’re doing, like trying to set up regulations to make appliances more energy-efficient -- which saves consumers money and is good for our environment -- is somehow restricting America’s liberty and violates the Constitution.

“A lot of our job is to educate the public as to why this can be good for them -- in a very narrow self-interested way.  This is not pie in the sky. This is not tree-hugging, sprout-eating university professors. This is a practical, hardheaded, smart, business-savvy approach to how we deal with energy.”

Obama is dealing with energy in a somewhat different way than his fellow Democratic leader, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Obama has embraced an “all of the above” approach to encourage sources of domestic energy production, including fossil fuels and renewables, and in previous speeches he has identified fracking for natural gas and oil as “a priority.” Obama’s words have been supported by his actions: His EPA has dropped two critical investigations into groundwater pollution near drilling sites in Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania. Both investigations found chemicals associated with drilling in residential water wells, and this finding, if pursued, could have provided ammunition for policy reform and a threat to the industry’s exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act. Also, Obama’s Department of Energy has begun permitting facilities to export gas, a move that will encourage more exploration and production at home.

Cuomo, on the other hand, leads a state that sits over a lucrative part of the Marcellus and Utica shales – world class gas reserves. Yet Cuomo has not allowed shale gas development. A defacto-moratorium on permitting is now entering its sixth year, while the Cuomo administration continues to evaluate health and environmental impacts of fracking and the broader consequences of shale gas development.

In the meantime, political action groups both for and against fracking have used the delay to pressure Cuomo. Fracking supporters also appeared with signs  – Drill a Well, bring a soldier home -- within view of the presidential motorcade yesterday. That protest, at Otsiningo Park boarding Route 81 several miles north of Binghamton, was much smaller and less visible than the one on campus, and the difference between the two protests illustrates the way things are going in New York state.

Walter Hang, an anti-fracking activist and an organizer of the Binghamton University protest, said the logistically difficult demonstration on campus was a reflection of the organizational ability and commitment of the anti-fracking push from the grass roots that has stalled the development of shale gas at the Pennsylvania border.

“When Obama’s office announced he would be taking a bus tour through upstate, we knew this was a chance to get our message out nationally,” said Hang, a career activist who worked as a community organizer for New York Public Interest Research Group for decades. Hang emphasizes the importance of tactics and execution in political action campaigns. “We’re out-organizing the industry in New York state,” he said.

In addition to well-organized grass roots campaigns in upstate New York, the movement is also getting help from Cuomo’s broader progressive base, which includes a host of institutions and influence from the Hudson Valley and New York City areas strongly opposed to fracking.

Cuomo, seen by many as a rising star in the Democratic party and a possible successor to Obama, neatly sidestepped this chapter of the shale gas controversy. After greeting the president at the Buffalo airport Thursday, he took his daughters back to college while the president made his rounds upstate.

On a related note: While most drilling takes place on private land, the federal government is considering a set of rules to regulate fracking on federal and Indian lands. This recent article by Keith Johnson of the Wall Street Journal explains the fight between the industry and environmentalists over the scope of proposed rules by the Bureau of Land Management.

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