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Last month, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit to allow the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to be constructed through over eight counties and across 300 waterways. The proposed pipeline will transport gas over 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina’s southern border. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the pipeline last October, when two of five seats were vacant, on a 2 to1 vote. Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe joined Republican state legislators in supporting the pipeline. 

Native Americans make up one percent of the North Carolina’s population but thirteen percent of the people who live within a mile of the pipeline route are Native Americans — about 30,000 people from the Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee and Meherrin tribes. The pipeline will end in the middle of Lumbee Tribal Territory, where a compressor station and 350 foot communications tower will be built. 

“I continue to speak up in hopes that state and federal regulators will acknowledge the project’s disproportionate impacts on indigenous peoples,” Ryan Emanuel, an Environmental Sciences Professor at North Carolina State University, and a member of the Lumbee Tribe, told me in an interview. “Our cultures are at stake, whether it’s by disturbance of remains and archaeological sites, through climate and land use change, or by erosion of rights to determine what development looks like in our own communities.”

The NAACP is also opposing the project, due to its impact on black communities. “In seven of the eight counties along the proposed route the African American population ranges from 24.3 to 58.4 percent, compared to the 21.3 percent at the state level,” it noted in a November 2017 case study. A compressor station is proposed is Northampton County, on the border of North Carolina and Virginia, where the African-American population is 54.6 percent.

The $5 billion pipeline project is being constructed by Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas, who plan to make it operational by 2019. None of these firms have stellar environmental records. For example, last October the state of Virginia proposed a $260,000 fine against Dominion Energy for two oil spills. In 2015, Duke Energy was charged for illegally dumping millions of gallons of toxic coal ash in North Carolina’s Dan River. 

However, the firms have strong political influence with lawmakers and regulators. The son of Dominion’s CEO, Tom Farrell II, is a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates and sits on a utility regulation commission. The company’s PAC has donated over $200,000 this election cycle to Republicans and Democrats in congress while Duke Energy kicked in over $330,000.

McAuliffe received nearly $100,000 from Dominion Energy’s PAC during his tenure as governor. Cooper raised more than $20,000 from Duke Energy during his Attorney General and Governor campaigns over the past decade. 

The likelihood of oil spills and the disproportionate impact on Native American and African-American communities have incited significant opposition to the project. Fifteen people were arrested last week during a sit-in at Governor Cooper’s office and more protests are being planned. But it will be a difficult challenge to block the pipeline given the vast political power of the energy companies pushing it.