The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most pristine places on Earth, and yet it is now open to oil and gas development for the first time since it was designated a refuge in 1960. The refuge has unfortunately been miscast as a savior of America’s energy future based on two erroneous beliefs: drilling in the refuge will boost the nation’s economy and will increase U.S. energy dominance, neither of which is true.
The economic reality of oil in the Arctic Refuge is that we do not know if there’s anything significant there, nor do we know if there is any real interest in drilling. What is probable is that any oil found will likely be gone in a generation, and by that time the damage to the refuge will be significant enough to last thousands of years.
Further, drilling in the refuge will not be a factor in U.S. energy dominance. By almost any measure the use of fossil fuels is on a steady decline while the use of clean energy has rapidly increased. From 1997 to 2007, fossil fuels accounted for 77 percent of the growth in global power generation. That has dropped to 40 percent in the past five years, a time when the growth of wind and solar power has climbed to 45 percent. Renewables are where the growth is, and that is what will lead our energy future.
Most unfortunate is that the dubious benefits of drilling in the Arctic Refuge will have severe consequences on God’s creation, both human and non-human. In the rush to drill for oil in this sensitive place, we are losing sight of how the land and the people who live on it are reduced to commodities and may suffer irreversible harm in the process.
It may surprise some, but even though South Carolina is thousands of miles away, we have a great deal in common with the Arctic Refuge. Certainly we in South Carolina are no strangers to the offshore oil drilling divide and the shifting tide of sentiments on balancing energy development with land and coastal preservation. In addition, as a black church leader I find a commonality with the plight of the Gwich’in community, the native people who call the Arctic Refuge home, and the struggles faced by persons of color in South Carolina. Drilling for oil will undoubtedly compromise the food supply of the Gwich’in people, who rely heavily on the Porcupine Caribou herd for a vast majority of their food. African Americans also know the threat of hunger, with 1 in 5 living without food security.
Using my faith as a guide, the Scriptures give us great encouragement to do justice, practice love and mercy, and walk humbly with God. This faith gives me great concern for the Gwich’in people as they face the loss of a life that has endured for thousands of years. From Genesis 1 we know that the entirety of God’s creation — the Earth itself with all that is on it, humanity, and the life given us — are all gifts from God. The gift of the Earth brings great responsibilities that teach us and test our commitment to our faith. Will we care for the earth and enhance life? Will we use Earth’s resources properly?
I do not believe that drilling in the Arctic Refuge fulfills the values given to us and that we hold dear. Rather, drilling in the virtually untouched natural beauty of the refuge is counter to a clean and healthy environment for us and future generations.
The tradeoff for the minimal benefits of drilling is the loss of what many visitors describe as the most beautiful place on Earth, and the tearing down of a people and way of life that has flourished there for centuries. I pray that we rise above politics in our decisions about this wondrous place. I urge Congress, and in particular our South Carolina delegation, to reverse course on allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and instead work to protect the Gwich’in people and the Arctic Refuge that they call home.
The Rev. William Miller is pastor of Bethel AME Church in Conway and recently served on the governing board of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. He lives in Charleston.