December 18, 2017
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Opening Arctic refuge to drilling risks the Gwich’in people’s way of life

By Richard Killmer, Special to the BDN
Updated:
George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

As a faith leader, I believe one of the highest values a human being can live by is to care about others. This applies to an individual, a church, a corporation or the U.S. government.

These days, with so much in the federal budget that would upend key environmental safeguards for Mainers and the rest of the nation, I am seriously questioning the values Congress holds. Any sound federal budget should strive for the common good and to protect the health and welfare of its constituents.

The proposed Senate budget and tax reform package does none of that.

A provision tucked into the Senate budget and tax reform package would open up the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and changes its purpose from one of protecting wildlife to producing oil and gas. This breathtaking parcel of God’s creation, home to the Gwich’in people, is so unique in its wilderness qualities and ecological integrity that many who have been to the refuge say it has forever changed their lives.

[Drilling in the Arctic will ruin one of America’s last wild places]

In order to thrive, communities need a healthy environment, affordable health care, and to support vulnerable populations in their time of need. And that is why I stand with the Gwich’in. I know the consequences that would befall them from Arctic drilling, and I know that what befalls them could befall us.

The Gwich’in people rely heavily on the Porcupine caribou as a major source of sustenance. For them, the caribou is more than food and clothing; it is literally and spiritually who they are. The 197,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd migrates throughout the refuge and northwestern Canada. The pregnant female caribou come to give birth each year on the coastal plain, which the Gwich’in call “ The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

Unfortunately, the coastal plain is precisely the area slated for proposed oil drilling. In a study, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that oil development would harm wildlife and habitats in many ways, and the Porcupine caribou herd, specifically, is the most vulnerable to human-caused and natural stresses of all the caribou herds in Alaska. With the stresses of oil development in their calving grounds, it is virtually certain the size of the herd would be gravely diminished, effectively ending the Gwich’in way of life, which has been in place for centuries.

I was pleased when Sen. Susan Collins recently said, “I believe we can create an energy policy that will provide sufficient energy to meet the needs of today and of future generations without compromising America’s environmentally sensitive areas. With this in mind, I have opposed efforts to open areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Georges Bank off the coast of Maine to drilling.”

Clearly, this federal budget and tax package does not reflect her solidly Maine values.

To offset proposed tax cuts, the Senate budget and tax reform package makes doubtful assumptions about the rewards and consequences of drilling. Drilling — regardless of where it occurs — can have profound impacts on our communities. In the far off Arctic refuge, drilling would contribute to the carbon pollution that fuels climate change. It would also destroy the Gwich’in people and the Porcupine caribou on which they rely.

[Oil drilling in the Arctic will spoil the coastal plains migratory birds call home]

It makes no sense to open the refuge to drilling, especially with today’s low oil prices making the expense of drilling there economically imprudent. It’s a needless risk that would defile this incredible landscape and its Gwich’in inhabitants.

The stakes here are too high to not take a position. In a world where oil drilling peppers the landscape, there must be places where drilling is simply not allowed. The Arctic refuge is one of those places, a region of irreplaceable value that should forever remain as it is.

We must aspire to our highest calling here and defend the values that move us to care about other people. We must see that we are a larger part of a whole. We are all stewards of creation. And we must help one another because everyone is equally vulnerable.

I ask our elected leaders in Washington not to succumb to irresponsible and unnecessary proposals that would place the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its people in great jeopardy, but rather to stand for the values of kindness and consideration for our fellow human beings and God’s creation.

The Rev. Richard Killmer is a retired Presbyterian minister and founding executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture who has engaged in environmental work with the National Council of Churches and the Christian Reformed Church in North America. He lives in Yarmouth.

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