BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — President Barack Obama called for reduced reliance on fossil fuels as an energy source and rebuked Republicans for "manufacturing" a crisis over the federal government's budget deficit, during an hour spent taking questions from students at faculty at Binghamton University on Friday.
The president described natural gas as a "finite resource," even as he noted domestic gas and oil production has helped make the nation less dependent on foreign sources of fuel.
Obama also called for stronger energy conservation measures.
“We know that if we design our schools, homes, hospitals more efficiently, that as a country we could cut our power usage by 20, 25, 30 percent with existing technologies and we can put a bunch of folks to work,” he said.
However, he stayed clear of the controversy over hydrofracking, an especially hot topic in the region, which is considered a likely target of the gas industry should the state allow high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing to release gas trapped under layers of shale.
Obama's motorcade was greeted on campus by demonstrators on both sides of the hydrofracking debate. There were far more anti-frackers.
Kelly Branigan, of Middlefield, N.Y., who said she had also protested at Obama's speech in Syracuse the previous night, said she suspects Obama has been supportive of fracking because of what she called bad advice from advisers taking cues from the gas industry.
"Would he move his family next to a compressor station or a gas pad?" she asked. She contends the casings used in drilling are all doomed to fail at some point.
Eddie Rodriguez, of Butternuts, N.Y., an activist who often films such demonstrations, said the protests are designed to show political leaders that "there is a disconnect between the government and the people. The government is not listening to what the people want. The president is promoting fracking, and that's not what we want him to do."
Before taking questions, Obama gave a prepared speech focusing on his vision to make college education more affordable, repeating many points he had underscored a day earlier at the University at Buffalo.
He criticized Republican proposals to slice spending for science and education programs, saying such cuts would cause long-term harm.
“That’s like eating your corn seed, you know?" he said. "It’s like being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
The president loosened up during the question-and-answer session, cracking a joke when he took a question from a woman clad in an Obama T-shirt.
"If you want to get called on, wear the president's face on a shirt," he said to a burst of laughter.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Obama made a bit of news on a surprising front when he opined in response to one question that he believes three-year law school programs could be consolidated into two years.
Before making that declaration, he quipped: "This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck? I’m in my second term, so I can say it."
As for his reasoning, he said, “In the first two years, young people are learning in the classroom. The third year, they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm even if they weren't getting paid that much, but that step alone would reduce the costs for the student.”
Joe Mahoney is a reporter for The Daily Star of Oneonta, N.Y.