Episcopalians urge protection of Arctic refuge as Congress moves toward OK’ing drilling

By David Paulsen
Posted Oct 24, 2017

The Porcupine Caribou herd in the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, with the Brooks Range mountains in the distance to the south. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians are rallying against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, as the U.S. Senate takes initial steps toward opening part of the refuge in Alaska to energy exploration.

The developments in the Senate come just a month after Episcopal leaders from the church’s House of Bishops expressed renewed interest in the issue at their fall meeting, which was held in Fairbanks, Alaska. The bishops issued a letter to the church urging action on environmental and racial justice.

“Those who live closest to the land and depend on the health of this ecosystem are marginalized by the forces of market valuation,” Diocese of Alaska Mark Lattime said Oct. 20 in an emailed statement to Episcopal News Service. “I am proud of the Episcopal Church for its abiding stance in support of the Gwich’in people; the preservation of ANWR for future generations; and for the health of the planet.”

The Gwich’in, mostly Episcopalians because of the church’s early missionary work in the region, are one of the largest Native communities in Alaska. Those who live in the small villages of the Alaskan Interior still follow many of the traditional subsistence ways of life that their families have for thousands of years, though that lifestyle now faces environmental, cultural and economic threats.

The fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge loomed large during the bishops’ time in Alaska in late September. They learned that the Gwich’in are trying to protect the part of the refuge that serves as a major caribou birthing ground and is considered sacred by Native Alaskans. The caribou, hunted only after the herds migrate south, are a critical part of the villagers’ diet.

“People actually had the wisdom to set aside some areas so they would not be open to development, and they really are crucial to future generations,” Princess Johnson, a Gwich’in activist and an Episcopalian, told the bishops during one of their sessions.

No drilling has yet been approved, but on Oct. 19, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, preserved a measure in the Republicans’ proposed budget that calls on the committee to find $1 billion in revenue through federal leasing. That measure doesn’t specify drilling in Alaska, though the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most likely target.

“It is the best option, and it’s on the table,” Murkowski, a Republican, said, according to a Washington Post report. “It’s about jobs and job creation. It’s about wealth and wealth creation.”

Lattime, in his statement to ENS, acknowledged the economic benefits of drilling, but the “true cost of these benefits” – to the Gwich’in and to the environment – “is never accurately measured.”

“We are called by our baptism to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being,” he continued. “The value of the ANWR ecosystem and the Gwich’in people is beyond measure, and we have a moral stewardship obligation to recognize this value and to preserve it.”

The Episcopal Church has long been on record opposing drilling in the refuge, as stated in a 1991 resolution of General Convention. A 2012 resolution further detailed the church’s support for “communities who bear the greatest burdens of global climate change: indigenous peoples, subsistence communities, communities of color, and persons living in deprivation around the world,” as well as for “fence-line” communities who are “those suffering in body and spirit for their proximity to the extraction and processing of fossil fuels.”

The bishops’ Sept. 26 letter to the church urged Episcopalians to join them in “prayerful listening” on the issues of environmental and racial justice while identifying the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as one focal point.

“God calls us to listen to each other with increased attention. It is only with unstopped ears and open eyes that our hearts and lives will be changed,” the bishops said in the letter. “It is through the reconciling love of God in Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit that we and the Earth itself will be healed.”

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations has stepped up its advocacy on the Arctic refuge as has lawmakers have renewed the possibility of drilling in its 19.6 million acres, which only Congress can approve.

“This sacred land is under threat,” Office of Government Relations said in a Sept. 27 policy alert to its network asking Episcopalians to contact their representatives. “The Episcopal Church has long stood by the Gwich’in, defending their right to exist and feed themselves. As the bishops of the church call us to prayer, education, and reconciliation, we must also act.”

Environmental conservation groups also are mobilizing this week and are asking supporters of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to attend one of a series of “day of action” events, starting Oct. 23 in Staten Island, New York. A national day of action rally is scheduled Oct. 24 in Washington, D.C., led by the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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Comments (11)

  1. Michael McLane says:

    There IS global warming – Proven
    There is man-made global warming. Not yet proven by the Scientific Method. If it isn’t proven, how can we hope to have success in stopping/slowing/changing it?

  2. Donald Heacock says:

    I can drive any direction from my home & see drilling or pumping rig s. Get a life we can drill & still save the artic & the Caribou.

    1. Janet Mae Diehl says:

      This land is part of the land the Gwich’in people have lived on for thousands of years. They and other indigenous people have been the brunt of brutal Colonialism. Can not the USA imperialism stay out of this critical & sacred land of the Gwinh’in? What are your Baptismal vows and/or your personal values? Not everyone thinks it is great to live be oil pumping rigs which come with smells, dripage and leaks. No, thank you.

  3. Janet Mae Diehl says:

    I lived in Alaska for only 3 years, when it was a new state, but I am sickened by the greedy push to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and other National Parks & preserves. It seems that too many folks who have lots of money want more, even at the expense of destroying land & water held sacred by indigenous peoples. Have we learned nothing from history? What happened to Compassion…for other people, for the needs of wild animals, for the need to preserve natural wonders of land & water??? We ought to all be changing to Solar and Wind power, there is a limit to fossil fuels. Drilling & mining endanger: Water, wildlife nursery land, indigenous peoples way of life – be it Lakota or Gwich’in. Protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from any mining, drilling, or hunting,

  4. John Miller says:

    God calls us to be stewards of the earth. I am glad our church is taking this stand. CLimate change is affected to human activities. Check the 98% of scientists who agree with this.

  5. Dn. Dorothy Royal says:

    I don’t think the USA alone can stop weather change.

  6. Ann Schumann-Ousley says:

    Mr. Heathcock, it isn’t about oil drills marring the landscape. Its about a way of life that is dictated by tradition, geography and environment. Do you live in a place where you have easy access to a grocery store? Do you live in a place where the pipes carrying the oil must be insulated and elevated? The interior of Alaska barely has roads, much less grocery stores. These indigenous people live off of moose, caribou and other wildlife and plants that depend on an environmentally stable ecosystem. Food stuffs beyond that must be flown in or come by river – thus a gallon of milk can cost close to $10 – yes, a gallon! Furthermore, piping the oil is complicated in this isolated (and earthquake prone) land and has the potential to impact the permafrost. In fact, the existing Tans-Alaska pipeline that traverses the interior had to be elevated and insulated because the oil’s heat is so extreme it would melt the permafrost. Melting permafrost has an impact on us all as it contains large amounts of carbon-containing organic matter that is unleashed into the atmosphere. Altogether, scientists estimate that Arctic permafrost could contain 1,700 gigatons (which is equal to 1.7 trillion tons) of carbon. Bottomline, like most things that matter, it isn’t so simple.

  7. P.J. Cabbiness says:

    God calls us to be stewards of his creation which include the natural resources he has blessed us with. I fully support the drilling as it is the highest and best use of the land. The economic benefits of drilling in terms of jobs and energy are innumerable and should be vigorously promoted.

  8. Ralph Davis says:

    Once again, the effort to wrap a social/political agenda in contrived theology. It is interesting how our Baptismal covenant is about “all people,” and “every human being;” that is, except for those who hold to conservative or contrary points of view. I am both a life-long Episcopalian and a conservative, but my views are disparaged by the National Church and the PB on a frequent basis. Before the haters start in, I agree that there are important social/political discussions to be had about the pros and cons of environmental issues. My disagreement is that it is a religious issue, and that I should be told that I am in violation of my Baptismal covenant if I hold a contrary opinion on this issue. As a final observation, the PB and his group recently traveled to Alaska – leaving one to wonder if they traveled via alternative fuel vehicles or ones (like most of us) that rely of a steady supply of oil?

  9. Quentin Durward says:

    Actually, this is not Gwich’in’s land. Kaktovik, the only village within the refuge’s coastal plain area being considered, is an Iñupiat Eskimo village and the Iñupiats are in favor of this drilling. But you did get to use the words “Indigenous”, “Colonialism” and “Imperialism”, in a single post AND play the “baptism” (holier than thou) card! How cool is that?

  10. Allen Rawl says:

    We can and must control our own drilling exercises in ANWR and elsewhere to satisfy the energy needs rather than depend on foreign countries whos drilling habits are not as stringent as ours . Additionally , if drilling is so “hazzardous” to the environment, why is it okay to trash other countries to support our habits?

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