By Justin SondeL email@example.com
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — President Obama’s second visit to Western New York since taking office drew thousands to the University at Buffalo’s north campus.
Obama spoke to more than 7,000 people in Alumni Arena, his first stop on a four-city, two-day tour to promote a new higher education initiative aimed at driving down the cost of secondary schooling.
The line to get into the arena stretched around the road that loops through campus, so far that the arena could not be seen behind the last person in line at 10:20 a.m., just under an hour before Obama was scheduled to speak.
A pair of Niagara University students were in that line moving slowly toward the arena in anticipation of the president’s remarks.
Andrea Nicolia, a senior education major, said she was excited to hear the president speak about a an issue that so directly applies to her situation as a college student.
“It’s a big deal to us at this time,” she said.
Matt Nadler, a senior political science major and an academic senate representative in the Niagara University Student Government Association, said he jumped at the opportunity to hear Obama speak as soon as he was offered a ticket.
“I was overwhelmed with the opportunity just to go hear him speak,” Nadler said.
But, not everyone gathered on UB’s campus was there to hear the president speak. Others were there to have their voices heard.
A crowd of about 90 people stood in a designated area a few hundred feet from the entrance of the arena, marked by steel crowd gates, holding signs promoting particular issues such as a ban on the controversial natural gas drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, changes in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Second Amendment rights.
The overwhelming majority of protestors were there to denounce the practice of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — nationwide, support a continued moratorium on the practice and permanent ban here in New York state and promote the push toward renewable energies. The environmental protestors broke into chants and yelled through bull horns as those attending the speech passed by on their way to the doors.
Rita Yelda, the Western New York organizer for the statewide coalition of groups supporting the ban of hydraulic fracturing New Yorkers Against Fracking, said that with a decision yet to be made on whether the practice will be permanently banned, fracking remains a key issue in the state.
“This is something that threatens our livelihood,” she said. “It threatens our water, our air and our land and you can’t get more basic than that.”
Yelda said that while Obama has made progress in renewable energies he has also allowed fossil fuel interests to continue polluting and profiting at the expense of the public.
“I think what a lot of people have seen coming from President Obama is a lot of hypocrisy in regards to the fact that he has acknowledged climate change and yet is still promoting natural gas development,” she said.
John Keevert, a retired photographic scientist with Kodak, drove from Rochester with a group of people to show their support for a continued ban on fracking.
Keevert, 69, who is part of an anti-fracking group in Rochester called R-Cause, said he commends Obama for his recognition of climate change, but thinks the president should be doing more to limit the use of fossil fuels.
“Natural gas is a fossil fuel, it’s as dirty as coal and it should not be a part of our energy profile,” Keevert said, later adding, “I’m here because of my grandchildren. So that in 40 years at least I’ll know I did something to try to avert climate change.”
Ronald Szolnoky held a sign up to the people in line for the speech that read “It’s not about guns. It’s about control.”
Szolnoky said he was there to rail against the president’s effort to expand federal gun laws and the SAFE Act, the state law pushed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that expands gun regulations, that was signed into law in January.
“This is not a debate that’s going away,” Szolnoky said. “We’re here. We’re not going anywhere.”
Szolnoky said that though his issue was different from many of the other protestors, they shared a common goal on Thursday.
“We’re putting out our displeasure with certain policies,” he said.Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257