A cemetery at the village of Kaktovik, Alaska, located just north of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain. Photo: AP

If you don’t often associate nuns with environmental activism, you probably haven’t met the Sisters of Mercy. The Roman Catholic women’s organization strives to “act in harmony and interdependence with all of creation” by advocating action on climate change and standing in solidarity with pipeline protestors. This week, the Sisters reaffirmed their commitment to protecting all life on Earth, when they called on Congress to keep drilling out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the country.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a part of God’s creation that stands alone in its wilderness, ecological integrity, and beauty,” a Nov. 1 letter to Congress, signed by a dozen members of the Sisters of Mercy along with nuns from other organizations, reads. “The exploitation of fossil fuels in the Refuge will contribute to climate change and threaten the ten thousand year-old traditions that the Gwich’in people depend upon to survive.”

The future of ANWR is shaping up to be one of the most high-stakes environmental battles of the year. On one side are congressional Republicans led by Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, who want to open the reserve’s 1.5 million acre oil-rich coastal plain to energy development. On the other, members of the Gwich’in Nation and environmentalists who say drilling in the refuge would be a disaster for Arctic wildlife.

Tasked with raising a billion dollars in revenue as part of the GOP’s 2018 tax reform bill, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Thursday to see if the money could come from drilling in ANWR. Murkowski, who heads the committee, argued that oil extraction within the reserve would bring economic prosperity to the state, which would, somewhat ironically, help fund Alaska’s climate change mitigation efforts.

“This is not a choice between energy and the environment,” Murkowski said, according to E&E News. “We are past that.”

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But Sam Alexander, a former US Army Special Forces Officer and member of the Gwich’in Nation, argued the choice was exactly that, and that drilling in ANWR would ruin his people’s traditional subsistence way of life.

“We Gwich’in live a rich life,”Alexander said during the hearing. “We live a rich life because of our connection to the land and to the Porcupine Caribou Herd,” the herd that calves every year in ANWR’s coastal plain. “Money can’t buy our wealth, but the reckless pursuit of money can take it away.”

“As an Alaska Native person, it hurts my heart and hurts my soul to see them still talk about drilling in the refuge and drastically damaging the ecosystem and migrating grounds of porcupine caribou herd,” Esau Sinnok, a 19-year-old Iñupiaq Eskimo from the Alaskan village Shishmaref, told Earther. “That caribou herd plays a big role in the Gwich’n community and a lot of Alaskan Native culture.”

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Alexander and Sinnok may not have allies within Alaska’s congressional delegation, all three of whom support drilling. But faith leaders outside of Washington, including the Sisters of Mercy, are listening to them.

“Drilling in the Arctic refuge would be devastating to the people who live up there, their whole way of life,” Sister Janet Korn, a co-signatory on the letter sent by the Sisters of Mercy to Congress this week, told Earther.

She explained that the Sisters have five critical concerns—the planet, racism, women and children, immigration, and non-violence—and that all five are intertwined. When they see a proposal that would harm not only the environment but a marginalized group, they spring to action, signing letters and petitions, lobbying on Capitol Hill, and joining protestors on the streets. “It’s not just the Arctic, but wherever there’s [environmental] devastation,” Sister Korn said. “It’s happening all over.”

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As for next steps with regards to ANWR, “we certainly have to keep an eye on it and see what happens,” Sister Korn said. “And I think if negative things happen, we’ll just have to keep lobbying against them.”

Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech university, wasn’t surprised to hear about a Christian group speaking out on ANWR. An evangelical Christian, Hayhoe often draws on her faith to connect with religious audiences when talking about climate change and conservation.

“Connecting the dots between our most deeply-held values and the impacts our choices and actions are having on our world is fundamental to helping us all understand why we need to wean ourselves off our old, dirty ways of getting energy as soon as possible,” Hayhoe told Earther.

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“We believe we humans have been given the responsibility to care for this amazing planet we live on,” she added.

Brian Kahn contributed reporting to this article.