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Church leaders and Alaskan natives step up fight against drilling in Arctic refuge

Posted on: September 6, 2019 11:27 AM
Arctic Coastal Plains
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

[ENS] A coalition of Episcopalians and Alaskan conservationists will take its battle to protect the Arctic to decision-makers in Washington this month.

The US-based Episcopal Church’s Task Force on Care of Creation and Environmental Racism is continuing its fight to prevent drilling from disrupting the ecology of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge’s most sensitive area in the northeast corner of Alaska.

At 19.6 million acres, it is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States, stretching from the forests of Alaska’s Interior to the Arctic Ocean.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which speaks on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation to protect the Coastal Plain of the Arctic from the oil industry, will be lobbying ahead of a vote expected in the House of Representatives this month to restore protections against drilling, after the area was opened up in 2017.

According to Bernadette Demientieff, the Coastal Plain is where the caribou go to give birth and nurse their calves every summer. “This area is sacred to our people,” Bernadette Demientieff said, “so sacred that during the years of food shortage we still honoured the calving grounds and never stepped foot on the Coastal Plain.”

The prospect of a large oil field beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Coastal Plain – bringing with it the jobs and revenue that Alaska desperately needs – has made opening it up to development a top priority for the state for decades. And in December 2017, a provision to open the area to drilling was signed by President Donald Trump.

The coalition of The Episcopal Church, the Gwich’in Steering Committee and the Alaska Wilderness League has been a constant presence at congressional hearings for years, most recently on March 26 at a hearing on a bill that would have repealed the refuge-opening provision in the 2017 tax law. Alaska Bishop Mark Lattime and Bernadette Demientieff both testified in support.

“In Alaska, where the Episcopal Church began to take root was in Gwich’in country,” said Bishop Mark. “And so, as a diocese, we have recognised that this is our family. These are our people. And we have wanted to do what we can to stand and walk with them and support them.”

Now, with the prospect of drilling in the refuge closer to reality than ever, Episcopal and Gwich’in leaders say they’re not giving up - especially in the face of the climate crisis, which is already wreaking environmental havoc in Alaska.

“It’s not over,” Demientieff said. “It just started.”

According to campaigners perpetuating the burning of fossil fuels, drilling in the refuge would contribute to the effects of the climate crisis that are being felt more severely in Alaska than almost anywhere else. The state has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. in the past 60 years.

Amid record-high temperatures, the sea ice that once protected coastal villages from erosion has dramatically retreated, causing problems for Native subsistence hunters and putting whole villages under threat of sinking.

 “God gave us this land to take care of,” Demientieff said. We should be taking care of our blessings. We should always take care of what God put in our hands to take care of for him, not to drill it and destroy it.”