If its developers succeed, the 594-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline will run from West Virginia to a terminus in Robeson County, North Carolina — the ancestral land of the Lumbee tribe, the largest Native American community east of the Mississippi River. For centuries, the Lumbees have united to face invasive forces from man and industry. But with their home county looking for any source of jobs, the tribe is wrestling with itself over whether the pipeline should come through.
Story by Adina Solomon & Asher Elbein | Photographs by Kate Medley
Twice an hour, Mary Ann Jacobs’ office at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke begins to rumble. The walls shudder. On a track just outside, trains barrel by, taking goods to and from manufacturers in Robeson County, where Pembroke sits, in southeastern North Carolina.
“It’s like being in an earthquake zone all the time,” says Jacobs, an associate professor who chairs the American Indian Studies program at UNC Pembroke.
And now, Jacobs is worried about a new line coming through — one that’s already bringing a different type of disruption to Robeson County: The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), a 594-mile, interstate, natural-gas line funded by local utility powerhouses Dominion Resources, Duke Energy, and two subsidiaries, is slated to reach its terminus in Robeson County.
One could look at Robeson as simply one more community along the ACP’s route from Harrison County, West Virginia, down through Virginia and into North Carolina.
But that would fail to account for the significance of Robeson County. The county is the ancestral home of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, whose 61,000 members make it the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River. Many members of the Tuscarora tribe also live in Robeson. A mix of Native American, African-American, and Latino people together account for 68 percent of the population, making Robeson the most ethnically diverse rural county in the United States.
To the Lumbee tribe, the importance of Robeson County cannot be overstated.
“We have a strong sense of place, a sense of home, so even though a lot of our people may not have even grown up here, they still consider this home,” says Alisha Locklear Monroe, a Lumbee and a former art teacher who still makes glass beads. “[That sense of place is] passed down to them through family traditions, how their family spoke about this place. ... There’s some people who choose to literally live their whole lives here, and they never leave.”
To some Lumbees, the pipeline represents yet another in a centuries-long series of periodic invasions, says Malinda Maynor Lowery, a member of the tribe who last year became director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Born in Robeson County and raised in Durham, Lowery can recount an extensive history of how the Lumbee have responded to invasive forces. One powerful example is from 1958, when the Ku Klux Klan decided to put the Lumbees in their place by holding a rally in Robeson County. A group of Lumbees organized to break up the demonstration, driving the KKK out of the county. The Lumbees call it the Battle of Hayes Pond and commemorate the anniversary.
But the Lumbees are less unified in their stance toward the ACP. Everyone has a different view of how it might help or hurt. Much of that debate centers on something Robeson County needs more of and the ACP professes to attract: jobs.
Some believe the ACP will bring jobs while posing minimal risk to people and the environment. Others believe the pipeline poses real threats to the land and people — and that few of the promised jobs will materialize.
Once the rumble of the train stops, Jacobs run her hand through silvery hair and ponders how the ACP will affect her community. She has experience: The ACP is actually the third pipeline to arrive at Jacobs’ doorstep. That isn’t hyperbole; when the first natural-gas pipeline came to the area in the 1950s, Jacobs’ grandfather could not afford an attorney to fight off a claim on his property, so he took whatever compensation was offered. A Piedmont Natural Gas compression station — a small, blue building — now stands there.
“We never, ever thought about that little building, that blue building,” Jacobs says in a soft voice.
That is, until 2013, when her uncle found himself in a similar situation with land he had inherited from Jacobs’ grandfather. Like his family did before him, he took the offer. Across the street from that blue building, a second station soon appeared. Those stations are hard to miss, nestled among the historically Native campus of UNC Pembroke, the fire station, a restaurant serving up lunches of crispy fried chicken, and homes. Many homes.
The third pipeline will sit between Pembroke and nearby Prospect, again on land once farmed by Jacobs’ family. Her family graveyard is almost within sight of the stations. Jacobs’ brother and his wife are moving into their father’s house nearby. It’s a move that puts them inside a theoretical blast radius, should the worst come to pass.
“It’s really something to think about,” Jacobs says, “the fact that if anything ever happens, I would not have a brother and my aunts and uncles and the graves to go visit. It would just be a mess.”
The trains keep shaking Jacobs’ office. They are impossible to ignore.
As evening falls, Alisa Locklear Monroe locks up the doors of the Museum of the Southeast American Indian, where she works as education coordinator, and leads us to a scarlet gazebo on the UNC Pembroke campus near the train tracks.
“Our ancestors have been here for centuries,” she says, playing with her beaded necklace. “That sense of place is everything that we are.”
That feeling holds even for those who have left. Though tribe member Ryan Emanuel grew up in Charlotte and now works as an associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, he calls Robeson County home.
“You’ll find that sentiment typical among Lumbees who live away from home. I can’t call it anything other than home in any conversation,” he says. “We’ll ask each other when we’re going home or when we’ve been home last or things like that. No matter where we live now that’s a known term among Lumbees.”
Or take Donna Chavis. She grew up in Robeson, not far from the fire station on Prospect Road. Though she lived briefly in New York City, she’s been back home nearly 40 years. She and her husband Mac Legerton — a gray-haired minister originally from Atlanta — wanted their daughter to be born in North Carolina. Soon afterward, Chavis and her husband founded the Center for Community Action, a Robeson-based social justice organization that has campaigned against the ACP.
“The land isn’t just what you plant on. It’s where the trees are located. It’s where the water is filtered through the land and then goes into the river,” Chavis explains. “So you’re looking at every aspect of our historical, cultural ways being threatened by the pipeline. And the pipe, when it goes in, it’s forever.”
The river Chavis refers to is the Lumber — commonly called the Lumbee — River. It holds significance in Lumbee culture.
“If you look at any tribe across the nation, there’s always a part of their environment that gives them an attribute,” says Jorden Revels, a Native activist and sophomore studying at UNC Pembroke. “If you’re looking toward the West and the Plains, a lot of the Natives had hide. A lot of the Pueblo Indians used part of the mountainsides and the clay that was there to help give them shelter, and it also played a large role in their cultural traditions and practices of making pottery.
“If you look at the Lumbee, you can’t really associate with the Lumbee with anything that doesn’t include the Lumbee River.”
The river is part of the rich network of creeks, swamps, and waterways that wind through the fields of Robeson County. These wetlands host common species like river cooters and hooded merganser ducks along with the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, wood stork, and Michaux's sumac. That bounty of this land has sustained the Lumbees for centuries, Revels says.
“Without the river giving us all the different food sources [and] cultural practices, we wouldn’t be here as Native Americans, because the entire river is basically a constitution of our Native life,” he says.
But Robeson County hasn’t just fed and watered the Lumbees: Its patchwork of swamps has sheltered them, too.
“We had so much isolation because of swamps and forest lands and such, really dangerous territory. You could get lost in there and die,” Chavis says. “There has been a history of many tribes coming in for protection.” The isolation allowed older ways of life to persist; even today, there are Lumbee who get by largely on hunting and fishing, a livelihood that pipeline developments threaten, Chavis says.
The environmental threats have been long in coming. In 1986, GSX Services Corp. planned to place a hazardous-waste treatment plant in the county. The plant was slated to process half a million gallons of toxic waste from 10 states daily, much of which would eventually end up in the Lumber River.
“You take a poor rural county, add a high minority population with historical racial, political, and economic divisions, and you have the most vulnerable community for the siting of massive waste treatment and disposal facilities,” the Center for Community Action’s Legerton told The New York Times. As director of the Center, he and his wife Donna Chavis mobilized against the waste plant. By 1990, the plan for the plant had failed.
Some Lumbees hope the ACP meets a similar fate. But Lowery says this time, the Lumbees have had little opportunity for preparation.
“It seems, at least on the surface, that Dominion kind of snuck in there, constructed this thing, secured a lot of agreements from folks, without really telling anybody what they were doing,” she says. “So, that means we now face another battle that we’re uniquely unprepared for, and that worries me.”
There’s no such thing as a popular pipeline project.
The Dakota Access, Keystone, and Keystone Xl have drawn sustained fire from broad coalitions of activists and lawmakers, uniting conservative land-rights activists with environmentalists and Native Americans defending tribal sovereignty.
While those projects garnered national attention, the ACP has persistently flown under the radar since project planning began in 2014. But the endeavor is a hefty one: a pipeline, 42 inches in diameter in many parts, slated to carry around 1.5 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas across hundreds of miles, out of the shale beds of West Virginia and into Virginia and the Carolinas.
The ACP continues its move forward. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued a major water permit for the project on Jan. 26.
The ACP’s projected route has raised serious environmental concerns, says Lorne Stockman, senior research analyst at renewable-energy think tank Oil Change International. Where many other pipelines are routed along the vast plains of the continental interior, the ACP is slated to cross the steep slopes of the Alleghenies, including the Appalachian Trail itself. It’s a big project, Stockman says: On several ridges, they’ll have to blow out bedrock and change the topography of the slopes, potentially causing massive amounts of erosion and clogging creeks and streams. (Likely destruction of endangered salamander habitats prompted the U.S. Forest Service to veto one projected route in 2016.)
“We’ve seen horrendous damage done in Ohio with a similar project,” Stockman says. “This one is a mega construction project in a region that is mostly national forests, has a lot of value for recreational use and is used by millions of people a year.”
Nor is the pipeline on safer ground once it’s out of the mountains. Beneath the waving grasses and trees of southwestern Virginia lies rock honeycombed with tunnels, caverns, and aquifers, which comprise the headwaters for the Shenandoah, James, and Potomac rivers. One report, prepared for the Augusta County, Virginia, Service Authority, warned the blasting necessary for the pipeline could damage the honeycombed limestone — known as karst — and affect water flow in springs and wells. Then, there is the ever-present possibility of sinkholes, a worrying thing to contemplate on a pressurized pipeline.
Yet the ACP has considerable muscle pushing it forward, sometimes in ethically questionable ways. According to a report by watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative, Dominion and Duke contribute heavily to politicians on both sides of the aisle: Democratic Sen. Richard Saslaw, the Virginia Senate’s minority leader, has gotten $237,500 from Dominion since 2007, while Majority Leader Thomas Norment, a Republican, got $81,739. Dominion also contributed a hefty $110,000 in combined campaign and PAC donations to Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s Democratic governor. Unsurprisingly, he’s been enthusiastic about the ACP.
Duke has been equally generous with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who Greenpeace reports received $43,750. News came out in February that Cooper hired former oil lobbyist Lee Lilley as legislative director. Lilley was registered to lobby on behalf of none other than Dominion.
Nor are the regulators themselves exempt from the largesse, PAI reports: David K. Paylor, the longtime head of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, has a history of accepting gifts from Dominion, while DEQ Water Permitting Division Director Melanie D. Davenport previously served as an attorney for Dominion.
Yet these concerns have had little effect on the permitting process for the ACP, says Ben Luckett, a lawyer with the nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Advocates. Pipelines are subject to review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In theory, Luckett says, FERC carefully weighs the evidence and determines whether projects meet “public need,” which justifies a private company’s ability to seize land through eminent domain. In practice, though, FERC determines public need through pre-construction contracts — known as “precedent agreements” — between electricity providers and utility companies. If a company can round up enough such contracts, FERC tends to rubber-stamp the project, reasoning that the contracts are a proxy for demand.
This regulatory strategy opens the door to a peculiar brand of self-dealing. Duke and Dominion both own the utility companies that would purchase natural gas. In gathering precedent agreements from their subsidiaries, they are therefore signing contracts with themselves to gain FERC approval. The construction of the pipeline would earn shareholders a hefty profit through rate hikes while passing the $5 billion construction costs off to their customers and those whose land the pipeline must cross.
“The company itself doesn't take any risk in building that infrastructure, no matter if they don’t actually need any of the gas and it doesn’t serve the customers,” Luckett says. “They get to pass all of that on to their rate-payers. It’s a case of privatized gains and socialized losses. All the risks are placed on the public, and all of the gains go to these corporations.”
You don’t have to take an outsider’s word for it, either. Just ask Thomas Hadwin, a 14-year veteran of the industry. Hadwin led a department for electric and gas utilities in New York that licensed multibillion-dollar projects and made sure facilities met environmental regulations. While FERC guidelines written in 1999 require significant proof of market demand, Hadwin says, they never actually seem to ask for it.
The results of that rubber-stamping are arrangements like Florida’s Sable Trail Pipeline, also partially owned by Duke Energy. Customers are on the hook for $15 billion over the next 25 years, Hadwin says, whether the utility uses the pipeline or not. And that $15 billion pipeline is running at only 25 percent capacity, all of which is taken from existing, cheaper pipelines.
"Having been in the middle of really intense regulatory processes at both the state and federal level…, I’m very disappointed with FERC’s approach to this,” Hadwin says. “This is a prime example of what’s going on in the natural-gas pipeline business. The pipeline owners make money, the ultimate customers pay significantly more, the existing pipeline system’s used less than it could be, and a mess is made in the construction of these projects.… These things just do not make sense."
In Robeson County, though, not everyone sees it that way.
At Lumber River Trading/True Value Hardware in Lumberton, the seat of Robeson County, a customer chats with the plaid-shirted owner. Al Locklear finishes the conversation with his customer, and we step into his cluttered office, the smell of lumber in the air. A Native statue stands in the corner, and plaques from the Kiwanis Club and a local martial-arts studio cling to the wall.
Locklear is a common name in Robeson, and Al isn’t closely related to Alisha Locklear Monroe. He doesn’t share her pipeline stance, either. As chairman of the Lumberton Chamber of Commerce, he says the pipeline project just makes sense. His reasoning is an observation he shares with the staunchly anti-pipeline Legerton: insufficient jobs due to the ravages of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Since NAFTA, our textile industry went south to Mexico, and because of the anti-tobacco platform that we’ve been on for about 30 years, our tobacco farming industry has gone south,” Locklear says. “So we were left essentially with no jobs.”
Legerton — who shares Locklear’s tendency to hit the table in front of him when he’s making a point — says after NAFTA went into effect in 1994, 40 percent of the area’s private-sector jobs vanished. A third of Robeson County residents now live in poverty, almost double the statewide percentage. A large part of the population works in the county’s poultry and hog processing plants. With poverty so prevalent in Robeson County, any hope of jobs – no matter how faint – wins attention. At a hotel in Lumberton, a front-desk employee said she was torn about the ACP: “I know it’s bad for the environment, but we need jobs.”
That statement sums up the argument between supporters and opponents of the pipeline. The pipeline companies have been keen to weigh in. Aaron Ruby, the spokesperson for Dominion, says Robeson County and neighboring Cumberland County will have a 61-mile portion of the ACP. At the peak of construction, 800 people will work on the pipeline in these two counties. At least half of the workforce will flow from local union halls.
But Robeson County will get no permanent jobs from the ACP itself. Ruby says once the pipeline is finished, its closest field office will be in Johnston County, 80 miles from Lumberton.
Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC glosses over that data. Instead, it insists the bigger economic effects of the pipeline will come from its ability to attract industry and jobs. ICF International, a consulting company, prepared a report for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC in 2015 saying the pipeline could create 900 jobs in North Carolina. However, that number shrinks when you read closer. The prospective 900 jobs go to the entire state over a span of two decades, an average of just 45 jobs per year. (In the months before this story published, that economic report was removed from Dominion’s website. A page not found error stands in its place.)
Yet there’s plenty of local institutional support for the pipeline. To hear the reasoning behind it, you can speak with Robeson County Manager Ricky Harris and Tom Taylor, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, at their office on North Elm Street, near downtown Lumberton. The two men sit at an imposing wooden table. They like to joke, and they chat easily back and forth. But they’re all business when talking about the ACP.
The ACP will catalyze economic development, Harris says. In support, the Board of Commissioners joined the EnergySure Coalition, a group funded by ACP developers to promote the pipeline. The pipeline will produce $891,000 in tax revenues for the county per year once completed – and it will create jobs, which Robeson sorely needs. Shuttered businesses in downtown Lumberton stand as tangible evidence.
Today, the county’s biggest hope for jobs comes from manufacturing companies. Taylor says when scouting a location, they look at access to highways, rail service, and natural gas.
“We think in our recruitment, that’ll be a big plus for us to have natural gas. We have several companies now that use natural gas,” Harris says, adding that the county’s Campbell Soup plant uses natural gas. “We think it’ll be a tool in our toolbox for recruitment.”
Has any company ever said no to Robeson County for insufficient natural gas?
“We can’t tell you exactly that was the reason they didn’t come, but we have sites that don’t have natural gas and they’re taken out of the picture once they realize there’s not natural gas,” Harris answers.
Charles Gregory Cummings, a Lumbee who is the mayor of Pembroke and director of the Robeson County Industrial Economic Development Commission, says he is now working on a $300 million project with an Asian company. Cummings has served in local government ever since he returned from the Vietnam War more than four decades ago.
“If we hadn’t had natural gas, we would not have several industries that are in and around Pembroke right now,” he says. “If we didn’t have natural gas, we would not have Campbell Soup, a multibillion-dollar corporation. If we didn’t have natural gas, we would not have Pepsi Cola. We would not have Sanderson Farms that’s just invested $150 million in our county.”
But all this development happened without the ACP, so why is the new pipeline needed?
“I know there are times where they have to turn [existing pipelines] off. They can’t use it,” Harris says. (Ruby, the Dominion representative, says the existing pipelines are fully tapped.)
“We’re competing with our own state. We’re competing with South Carolina, Georgia, and everybody’s after anything they can get,” Taylor says. “All you can do is just lay it out there and hope that you can have everything that they want.”
Robeson indeed competes with neighboring counties for industry. ACP supporters say Robeson’s Sanderson Farms plant wouldn’t have opened without natural gas. While natural-gas access was a requirement, Robeson County still wasn’t Sanderson Farms’ first choice. The plant came to Robeson only after neighboring Cumberland County rejected it.
Lowery has questions: Why are numbers about the ACP difficult to find? Why hasn’t anyone asked how this type of project has affected another county?
“If all of that was available, then I’d be happy to have a discussion. Is the benefit going to outweigh the cost of it? But right now, there doesn’t seem to be,” she says. “People accuse the Lumbees all the time of not having a singular, unified stance on anything, but none of these folks advocating for the benefit of the pipeline have a single, unified stance, either, except to say something very vague, which is that it’ll bring jobs. Well, like, which jobs? How many? How long are they going to stay? Who are they for? What kind of training do you need to actually take these jobs?
“I can evaluate data, but I haven’t been given any data to evaluate. People are not sharing that in a consistent way. It often feels like there’s kind of an end run around the process or the evidence, rather than just confronting what the costs and the benefits are.”
Pembroke Mayor Cummings spoke about the benefits of the pipeline in a marketing video for EnergySure, the promotion group funded by ACP developers. “This is going to give us a chance to strengthen the economic growth here in eastern North Carolina,” he assures the camera. (Comments on the video are disabled.)
The message from pipeline advocates is clear: The county is in desperate need of whatever jobs or investment opportunities the ACP might bring. But April Whittemore Locklear, a Tuscarora mother in Fairmont, another town in Robeson County, questions what constitutes a need.
“A need is when you have food insecurity,” she says. “A need is when there are orphans and people that can’t house children. A need is when we have an epidemic with diabetes. There is no need for a pipeline.”
The ACP will terminate in Robeson County, where a monitoring station and 350-foot microwave cell tower will stand. Federal Aviation Administration regulations require a bright light at the tower’s apex. That worries Chavis; she calls it “an intrusion into the night space.”
“If you go there at night, you can see it’s dark. There’s not many night lights,” she says. “When you’re talking about them putting up this beacon up on top of that tower that will be going for 24 hours, you’re talking about a major impact on a community’s cultural ways that is used to having the stars available.”
There’s also the matter of the land the underground pipeline will occupy. Ruby says the temporary right of way for construction will stretch 110 feet wide, while the permanent right of way will be 50 feet wide. Farmers can continue to plant. But residents have relinquished rights to that land to an outside company, Monroe asserts.
“I have heard horror stories about folks coming in, tearing up their property, working all hours of the night,” she says. “They have no say-so.”
Reporting along the Virginia route of the ACP unearthed many such stories from landowners. Nancy Sorrells, a local historian and organizer with the Augusta County Alliance, says Dominion’s upgrade of telephone towers on easements resulted not only in higher towers than promised but in human waste left in the woods on private property. One Virginia landowner complained Dominion's workers treated his farm like they owned it, jumping his fence, refusing to notify him when they were doing survey work, and ripping out trees and vegetation planted to stop erosion.
There’s also resale value, which is tied into the question of safety. If ACP is completed, Jacobs’ brother will have a pipeline running on either side of his house.
“Who’s he going to sell that house to if he ever wants to sell it?” she says.
Since 2010, over 470 people have been injured in pipeline explosions and 100 have been killed. Damage from pipeline accidents, leaks, and spills totals more than $3.5 billion. While injury and fatality numbers have dropped somewhat over time, numbers of “significant incidents” — leaks and explosions — has begun to creep up. According to an April 2016 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the danger zone for a pipeline is anything within 1,100 feet. While the chances of such an incident are low, the prospect of an explosion is hard to ignore.
Safety concerns swirl around any major project, especially one spanning three states. Ruby says the pipeline will be monitored from West Virginia. The ACP will have sensors and remote shutoff valves. The right of way will be patrolled monthly on foot and by air. A certain amount of risk comes with any infrastructure project, Cummings says, no different from the danger that comes from flying or being on the road.
Yet stories circulate in Robeson about the negative effects of the two pipelines already in the county. Jacobs says when the second pipeline came to Prospect, farmers reported their land no longer produced. She also says you can smell gas at the compressor station if you get out of your car.
Jacobs’ father died in 2017, but when he was alive and suffering from Parkinson’s, she and her brother took turns spending time with him. “My brother said that when he was at Daddy’s house sitting with him one day, all of a sudden, the smell of gas just came through the house and he said he called 911. He said nobody ever came.”
Taylor has a different view of matters. “The only problem we ever had [is] people go by and they smell gas and they think [there’s] some danger to it, but it’s not, because I’m chief of the fire department. We go out there and there’s nothing to it.”
Except when there is. On November 22, 2017, a mechanical failure at a Robeson County compressor station allowed natural gas to leak into the air. Piedmont Natural Gas estimated 1,500 pounds of natural gas escaped during the 50 minutes before the leak was contained. The leaking pipe’s diameter was 2 inches. The ACP’s diameter, when it passes through North Carolina, will measure 36 inches.
Chavis says the ACP is different historically, too.
“In the ’50s, when the first pipeline was put in, there were not regulations like there are now that would be looking at environmental issues, environmental justice issues, allowing for citizen input, citizen education to do a risk-benefit analysis,” she says, ticking off each point on her hand. At this point, she says, a third pipeline also increases the danger. “You have three pipelines on top of each other? I mean, what does that say to you? Would you want to buy a house in a place that has three pipelines on top of each other going through it? Because if one has a spark or leak, all three of them are going to go.”
At a prayer walk held by Eco Robeson, a grassroots group led by Legerton, a Lumbee elder carried out a smudging ceremony where she burned sage to bring good energy. The group could use it: In fighting the pipeline, they’ve had teach-ins, meetings, and a paddle down the Lumber River, but Monroe says too few people come to their meetings.
Robeson County’s government has experienced the same apathy. Harris says when the pipeline was first proposed, the government had some public hearings and received little response. Taylor says the county also had a public hearing with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC and the community.
“Being in Robeson County with two pipelines already coming through the county, we hadn’t had many complaints or problems with the two pipelines that were already in the county, so we didn’t see the need [for more hearings],” Harris says. “So, we may have dropped the ball with that one. We maybe should have had a more public hearing, but we had them open and in the newspapers. We had information out.”
Jacobs has tried to convince her family to attend meetings, to no avail. She says they don’t believe they can change anything.
The Lumbee tribal government has likewise said little in public about the pipeline at its doorstep, either in support or opposition. The tribal government has held public hearings about the pipeline, plus a meeting to educate landowners. Cummings says the tribal government members he deals with on economic development issues support the ACP.
“Now, why they have not come out personally against it?” he asks rhetorically. “I don’t know. I’d rather not even comment on that part. But I can tell you the majority of the tribal members that I’ve talked to, they are definitely for the pipeline.”
Al Locklear, former chair of economic development for the tribal government, came out early as pro-pipeline. He serves as a Lumbee Tribal Council representative.
“My approach to the tribal government was to leave it alone, and here’s the reason: Every municipality in this county has done a resolution in support,” he says. “Every town that I know of. The county commissioner has done a resolution in support. Why would the tribal government do a resolution opposed to it when all the other municipalities have looked at it 10 ways to Sunday and cannot find any downside to it?”
But Chavis says the Lumbee government has a duty to study the ACP more deeply.
“When you take into consideration the size of our tribe among tribes in North Carolina, I believe we have a responsibility to fulfill our obligations — and when I say ‘our,’ I mean our government has the responsibility to fulfill its obligation — to protect, support, and stand for the thriving of its people. That’s in the [tribal] constitution.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would come to the same spot as the two pipelines already in Robeson County, sitting between Pembroke and nearby Prospect, a historically Native community. That area is nestled among many homes and catty-corner from a restaurant serving up lunches of crispy fried chicken.
The silence could pertain to another fight the Lumbee government has long faced. Since the 19th century, the tribe has fought for the U.S. federal government to grant it full recognition. In the most recent attempt on September 26, 2017, Lumbee tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin gave testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee in support of the Lumbee Recognition Act.
Recognition would bestow the tribe with a slate of privileges, among them a rule that energy companies are required to consult with it on any project that touches its land. Without federal recognition, there’s no such requirement. Which means that should construction crews happen upon Lumbee burial sites or archaeological objects, they aren’t obliged to consult with the Lumbee tribe.
What happens with burials and artifacts is not a trivial question. For its part, Dominion has spoken with the Lumbee government, which expressed concerns over protection of its historic resources, Ruby says. Over the past three years, archaeologists have surveyed the ACP route and adjusted it when artifacts were found. Ruby says the route has been changed more than 300 times.
Regardless, Monroe says, the tribe is unlikely to do anything to jeopardize the possibility of federal recognition – including speaking against the ACP.
“These companies like Dominion and Duke, they have connections all over the place. Big money’s what runs industry in the country. There’s no telling [if] somebody has somebody’s ear,” she says. “Let’s say that if they did push and they really got behind the fight against this, couldn’t that maybe jeopardize federal recognition in the long run with the people who are voting on whether we’re federally recognized? It could.”
But lack of federal recognition need not deter action by the Lumbee tribe, Lowery contends. She says the tribal government, individual Lumbees, and grassroots groups can all participate in the process. When they do so, she says, they articulate the tribe’s sovereignty.
“Ultimately, the Lumbee people are a sovereign people,” she says. “They have a right and an obligation to articulate their views when their cultural heritage, their territory is disturbed or someone wants to infringe upon it. The Lumbees have articulated their right to protect their territory for hundreds of years, in many different situations, faced by many different types of threats.”
Why projects like the ACP are usually routed through low-income areas is an interesting question that provokes different answers. About the one thing anybody agrees on is the promise of jobs rings loudly in counties that don’t have enough. Past that, disagreements start.
“Whenever something like a big developer company like Duke or Dominion comes through and they’re like, ‘Oh, hey, we’re going to bring all this awesome revenue. We’re going to give your people jobs,’ they’re providing false promises to people who are literally holding onto this promise for saving their lives and the livelihood of their families,” Revels says. “It’s a cyclical nature that happens to a lot of rural areas where they need money and then someone like Duke or Dominion comes in. They promise it, but the reality of the situation is they’re not getting those jobs.”
Pipeline supporters argue Robeson should get the ACP because it is one of the most impoverished counties in North Carolina.
“If we didn’t have the natural gas, our people wouldn’t have jobs, so it’s all about getting your people jobs,” Pembroke Mayor Cummings says. “It’s all about taking you out of poverty. It’s all about bringing your unemployment rate down. It’s all about strengthening the economy of your tax base to bring the taxes down on the citizens. And there’s nothing left. That’s all great news. Why wouldn’t you want it? If we don’t take it, the next county over is going to take it.”
Al Locklear is equally steadfast.
“I’ve not heard one sane argument as to why they shouldn’t put the natural gas in. I’m bewildered by it,” he says. “I hear people say that it’s not needed. What, you think the natural gas company is running a line because they just don’t have anything else to do? That’s a ridiculous statement.”
And yet, on a macro level, that’s essentially what’s happening. Energy utility companies, which are regulated monopolies, are allowed a set rate of return. That gives them a reliable amount of money to improve infrastructure and allows them to pass expenses for new infrastructure onto the consumers.
According to Hadwin, in the last century there were practical reasons for this arrangement: Throughout the 20th century, energy demand grew steadily in the U.S., and so it made sense to reward utility companies that invested in infrastructure. But having that set rate of return on every infrastructure investment today gives companies a reason to pursue unnecessary ventures in the name of profit, Hadwin says. Since natural-gas pipelines offer a 50 percent higher rate of return than a typical project, utilities build them even if they aren’t needed.
And there’s very good evidence the ACP isn’t needed. For one thing, demand for electricity has plateaued nationwide, even with continuing economic and population growth. According to a report by Oil Change International, renewables and currently existing infrastructure can easily cover energy needs without locking the U.S. into infrastructure that will be obsolete in a few decades. As it stands, the country is awash in extra electricity generation, and new plants coming online will increase the glut.
Hadwin says since the ACP was initially proposed, Duke and Dominion have cut back their demand projections for big, gas-fired power plants. Gas prices will get higher as American companies export to Mexico and South America, which makes investors happy, but it also raises electricity bills and pushes customers away from gas.
"Fewer and fewer people will be left paying more and more,” Hadwin says, “and that's not good long-term energy planning."
The ACP itself stands on the precipice of a natural-gas bubble that could soon pop. According to Hadwin, the gas boom was originally fueled by investors fleeing the 2007 crash in the mortgage securities market. Natural gas prices at the time had risen from $2 to $13 per thousand cubic feet, the standard unit. That made it an attractive industry for Wall Street entities looking to move their money. Cheap money flew into oil and gas development, spurring a boom in drilling. High prices also meant expensive technologies like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling suddenly become economically feasible, opening up previously unused areas to exploitation.
But the promise of abundant, easy natural gas was always a false one. The production of a typical natural-gas well often declines steeply after three or four years, unlike the two- to three-decade lifespan of a traditional oil well. That meant producers kept drilling even when it wasn’t profitable, to produce enough to pay off their loans.
“There was this cycle where companies had to keep producing more and more, even though the market didn't want more and more,” Hadwin says. “So, it created a huge surplus of natural gas, and the price went down. That's not common knowledge. The general public and the policymakers mistook that drop in price for a huge reserve of natural gas. People think, ‘Oh, we've got so much of it, and it’s dirt cheap.' People think we've got so much of this, it's gonna last forever."
In 2016, 200 oil and gas producers went bankrupt. Two months ago, the World Bank announced it would no longer fund projects involving oil or gas production, while French insurance giant Axa announced it would no longer invest in U.S. pipelines. Banks are beginning to pull out of the fossil-fuel industry, and even with a notably coal- and oil-friendly presidential administration, it’s likely more investors will cash out. After all, the imminent perils of human-caused climate change provide a sharp deadline for lowering emissions.
“By the middle of this century, we need to be creating electricity without CO2,” Hadwin says. “We talk about natural gas as a climate solution, but in practice, more gas plants are being added while we rely on it. So in Virginia, even though Dominion plans on adding solar plants, they’re also increasing CO2 emissions. … How does it make sense to keep putting in power plants that’ll need to be cut back or shut down? There’s no long view.”
Yet Dominion and Duke push the ACP along, evidently confident there’s still a bit of money to be made.
“It’s often very difficult for companies that have been around for a long time to really see a different future ahead,” Stockman says. “There’s an era of technological disruption going on in the industry. ... Dominion and Duke are probably aware that there are threats ahead, but I don’t think they give a lot of credit to how much that’s going to disrupt their markets.”
Thus, for now, the ACP charges ahead, leaving the people in its path to ponder what it might mean for their communities and lives.
Back on the UNC Pembroke campus, Monroe ponders the same question. As the evening breeze sighs against our backs, she clutches her gray sweatshirt.
“Prospect is one of the oldest Indian communities that we have,” she says as we sit in the gazebo. “The fact that this can be happening right there, and then people still aren’t awake to what’s happening, even though they might have seen something in the paper, they might have seen us doing a prayer walk, I don’t think they fully understand. But to me, what it shows me is times have changed.”
The horn and rattle of a train passing through drown out Monroe. She tries to keep talking, but the train — perhaps on its way to one of the manufacturing plants — has generated a crushing roar. So, we go silent for a moment, waiting for it to pass.
Perhaps that’s what’s so galling to people about the ACP and pipelines like it. They blast into our lives like the thunder of a train. Like a train, you can’t ignore them or their effect on your life. But they find it very easy to ignore you.