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US Episcopal Church backs Arctic refuge Bill

01 May 2015


Safely grazing: a caribou herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where energy companies hope to drill for oil reserves beneath the coastal plain

Safely grazing: a caribou herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where energy companies hope to drill for oil reserves beneath the coastal pla...

THE Episcopal Church in the United States is backing plans to designate 12.28 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness - a move that would block any drilling for oil or gas in the area.

President Obama has urged Congress to support a Bill to protect the area, describing it as "one of the most beautiful, undisturbed places in the world". The wilderness designation will include the area's coastal plain, home to the Porcupine Caribou herd, on which the indigenous Gwich'in people depend for survival.

The Republicans in Congress, however, argue that the oil-rich region should be opened up for drilling. The Republican Senator for Alaska, Dan Sullivan, said that the proposal was "outrageous", and would "undermine Alaska's future and America's energy security".

The Episcopal Church praised President Obama for taking a "critical step in protecting a sacred part of God's creation". The majority of the 7000 Gwich'in people are Episcopalian.

The former executive director of the Gwich'in steering committee, Princess Daazhraii Johnson, said: "We are dependent on the Porcupine Caribou herd for our survival, and if the health of that herd is threatened, it threatens our way of life. . . We need a more compassionate economy, and we need to think about climate change - the most affected people being indigenous, but all people are affected."

The Bishop of Alaska, the Rt Revd Mark Lattime, said: "The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is more than a wilderness preserve established to protect again the loss of the delicate Arctic ecosystems; it is also a sacred place, the spiritual and cultural home of the Gwich'in people.

"I call upon people of faith, especially Episcopalians, to listen to the voice of the Gwich'in people as they seek to protect not only the environment and peace of their home, but the respect and dignity of their way of life."

The indigenous Iñupiat Inuit people, however, who make their living by fishing and hunting on the Alaskan coastal region, do not all object to drilling, as they stand to gain economically from leasing their land to oil companies. The majority of them are also Episcopalian.

The US last month took the chair of the Arctic Council, a multi-national group of Arctic nations. The Secretary of State, John Kerry, promised to make the battle against climate change the first priority of the two-year US stewardship of the Council, which unites eight countries whose shores lie on the rim of the Arctic Circle, and who lay claim to shares of its oil, gas, and shipping lanes.

"The Arctic is warming faster than any other region," Mr Kerry said. "Temperatures are increasing at more than twice the rate of the global average, which means the resilience of Arctic communities and ecosystems, and the ability of future generations to adapt and live and prosper in the Arctic is tragically, but actually, in jeopardy."

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