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

October 24, 2017

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 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 the Episcopal 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,” and for “fence-line” communities, “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.