In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. Opponents of oil drilling in America's largest wildlife refuge have a message for oil drillers and the people who finance them: Don't become the company known for the demise of America's polar bears. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP

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The Trump administration on Aug. 17 finalized its plan to open up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to oil and gas development, a move that overturns six decades of protecting the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States.

The Interior Department has said that it completed its required reviews and will begin to auction off drilling leases.

“I do believe there could be a lease sale by the end of the year,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said.

President Donald Trump has long said that an increase in Arctic drilling is needed in his effort to expand domestic fossil fuel production on federal lands and secure America’s “energy dominance.” Republicans have prized the refuge as a productive source of oil and gas ever since the Reagan administration first recommended drilling in 1987. However, efforts to open it up had long been stymied by Democratic lawmakers until 2017, when Republicans used their control of both houses of Congress to pass a bill authorizing lease sales.

It remains unclear how much interest there will be from energy companies at a time when many countries are trying to wean themselves from fossil fuels and oil prices are crashing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This isn’t just about energy. The Gwich’in people, who live in the ANWR, rely heavily on the Porcupine caribou herd as a major source of sustenance. For them, the caribou is more than food and clothing; it defines who they are. The 197,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd migrates throughout the refuge and northwestern Canada.

Unfortunately, the ANWR coastal plain is precisely the area slated for proposed oil drilling. The National Academy of Sciences concluded that oil development would harm wildlife and habitats, and the Porcupine caribou herd is vulnerable to human-caused and natural stresses. With the threats 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.

The region’s fate may ultimately hinge on the results of the election. Joe Biden has called for permanent protection of the refuge. However, even if he were to win the White House, it could be hard for his administration to overturn existing lease rights once they have been auctioned to energy companies.

Opponents of drilling say that opening the refuge to development would be a step backward in an era when the world should be burning less oil in order to avoid drastic global warming.

Under pressure from environmental groups, many in the religious community and the Gwich’in, s everal major banks including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo have said they would not directly finance any oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

The one major bank that still makes loans for drilling in this pristine wilderness is Bank of America. It has refused to rule out funding for drilling in the ANWR.

Nearly 200 nations, in the Paris Agreement, have made a commitment to produce net zero emissions by 2050. New sources of fossil fuels are not needed and automobile companies are now beginning to increase their production of electric vehicles.

Drilling in the Arctic Refuge impacts the delicate ecosystem that God created. Drilling in the Arctic Refuge not only will devastate wildlife both in Alaska and the lower 48 states, but will decimate the Gwich’in people.

Faith communities and religious leaders have long opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Our commitment to protecting the Arctic Refuge is based on our commitment to defend all of God’s creation, including the fundamental rights of the Gwich’in people to ensure both their livelihoods and their religious liberties.

The Rev. Richard Killmer of Yarmouth is a retired Presbyterian minister.