Ryan Emanuel is an Associate Professor and University Faculty Scholar in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. On March 6th, Emanuel will be at Duke to deliver the talk, “Indigenous Rights, Environmental Justice, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”

This interview was conducted over e-mail with Miranda Gershoni, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center @FHI.

Miranda Gershoni (MG): What inspired you to study the environment?

Ryan Emanuel (RE): My parents raised me to love the outdoors, and they gave me diverse outdoor experiences in North Carolina and elsewhere. I knew from an early age that I wanted a career that involved being outside, but my interest in the environmental sciences did not emerge until I began working for the US Geological Survey immediately after high school. I continued with the agency during my undergraduate years at Duke, working on a variety of projects related to urban stormwater, floodplain mapping, long-term stream monitoring, and data stewardship. Those experiences inspired me to study hydrology and related sciences as a way to merge my early love of the outdoors with growing interest in science.

MG: How did you come to understand the intersection of human rights and the environment?

RE: I have spent most of my professional career studying the physical environment. Human dimensions were always part of the broader implications of my work, but they were not at the forefront of my early research. Several years ago, the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs asked me to serve on its newly-formed environmental justice committee. In working with the committee, I began to see deeper connections between the physical environment, public policies about the environment, and the rights of peoples whose cultures are defined by close connections to specific landscapes and waterways. The oral histories and teachings that I grew up with began to take a more central role in my day-to-day work.

MG: What do you see as the greatest disparities affecting indigenous communities in terms of environmental justice?

RE: Many of the disparities affecting indigenous communities are the same as those affecting all marginalized and disempowered communities. With few exceptions, we as a society don’t take environmental justice seriously in environmental decision-making. I think part of the problem lies in an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of environmental justice policy. Instead of seeking ways to amplify marginalized voices and protect vulnerable communities from outsized environmental burdens, we often conflate environmental justice with public relations, economic development, or the like. For indigenous peoples, the stakes are especially high, because our cultural identities are connected to specific environments. If those environments are degraded or destroyed, it becomes more difficult for indigenous peoples to maintain their identities and pass on their cultures to future generations. When decision-makers fail to identify and engage with indigenous communities, they risk overlooking these kinds of impacts. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is an international agreement that speaks directly to this point when it calls on states to seek free, prior, and informed consent from indigenous peoples before launching development projects in their territories. The declaration highlights energy infrastructure projects, such as pipelines, as examples of the types of development that warrant indigenous consent.

MG: Can you explain the challenges with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline?

RE: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline poses challenges in at least three different areas. First, from a public policy perspective, state and federal regulators missed opportunities to engage American Indian tribes in their information-gathering and decision-making processes. Tribal governments in North Carolina sought direct consultation with federal regulators during the environmental review process, but they were largely ignored. As a result, the federal government’s environmental review was silent on the pipeline’s potential impacts to 30,000 American Indians living in the study area, a disproportionately large number. If the project moves forward without acknowledging the large American Indian population and assessing the project’s unique risks to indigenous peoples, regulators will be hard pressed to explain how their actions are consistent with federal environmental justice policy or international policy such as UNDRIP.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline also poses challenges for local communities along the route, including indigenous communities. If built, the 600-mile long pipeline would rank among the largest-diameter and highest-pressure gas pipelines in the United States. Myriad health, safety, and socioeconomic impacts would be exacerbated by the size and scope of this project. Unique impacts to indigenous communities, who often live close to the natural environment and base their cultures and identities on natural landscapes, have yet to be assessed. Much of the pipeline’s infrastructure, including compressor stations, metering stations, and other industrial facilities, are slated for African American or American Indian communities such as Union Hill, VA and Prospect, NC. These communities were targeted for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, in part, because they host existing gas infrastructure built decades before environmental justice or community engagement were part of the regulatory process. Regulators and developers have yet to grapple with the present-day ethical challenges created by legacy decisions to locate this type of infrastructure predominantly minority communities.

Finally, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline hard-wires North Carolina and other southeastern states into decades of expanded dependence on fossil fuels. Energy decisions made in the next few years will likely determine whether society can reach the science-based goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. New fossil fuel projects, including the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, will make it even more difficult to reach this ambitious goal. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that natural gas could, in theory, play a role in achieving 2050 emissions goals, but the group cautioned that new natural gas developments must be accompanied by rapid deployment of large-scale carbon capture and storage technology. This is because methane leaks, unavoidable in the natural gas supply chain, have a major impact on global warming, especially in the 20-30 year timeframe. There are no plans to deploy carbon capture and storage technology alongside the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In a cruel twist, counties through which the Atlantic Coast Pipeline route passes are expected to suffer some of the region’s greatest economic damages from climate change. For example, Robeson County, NC is expected to suffer climate-related damages in excess of 10% of county GDP by the end of this century. Robeson County has one of the largest American Indian populations in the eastern United States, including 25,000 American Indians living along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route. Those people are being asked to host major fossil fuel infrastructure in their communities while also shouldering a disproportionate share of the climate change burden associated with emissions from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other projects.

MG: What is your unique perspective of these issues as a member of the Lumbee tribe?

RE: As a Lumbee, I have personal connections to some of the landscapes, waterways, and communities affected by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Over the past year, I have watched clearcutting and other activities for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and its sibling project, Piedmont Line 434, tear at the fabric of Lumbee communities by digging up farm fields, fragmenting forested wetlands, and altering the character of historic landscapes with new and proposed industrial facilities. Our communities are strong, but these pipelines hit us at a vulnerable moment. Lumbee and other indigenous peoples in this region are remembering and reclaiming our traditional ways. We are restoring relationships with culturally important plants, ecosystems, landscapes, and waterways. Pipelines and related infrastructure work against these relationships, threatening the integrity of indigenous landscapes and waterways, and adding to the mounting threats of climate change.

I was disheartened to see regulators ignore requests by tribal governments and other groups to include indigenous knowledges in the decision-making process for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but I am greatly encouraged by the ways that indigenous communities in North Carolina and elsewhere are responding to threats of fossil fuels and other drivers of environmental change. Responses are often rooted in cultural values, spirituality, and a nuanced sense of reflection about how our ancestors would have responded to these challenges. There are some in our communities who support the pipeline. Developers have suggested the pipeline could spur economic growth, and supporters often express hope that a gas pipeline could bring manufacturing jobs to Robeson and surrounding counties. Developers have reserved most of the pipeline’s capacity (80%) for electricity generation and have not revealed specifics about companies or sectors that might be interested in moving to the region.

MG: How does your partnership with tribal governments and indigenous organizations address indigenous rights and the environment?

RE: I work to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and ideas in ways that elevate indigenous voices. For centuries, American Indians were told that our knowledge is not important to society, our identities and lives are not worth saving or remembering, and when we are gone, our ancestral landscapes are only useful if they can be cleared, flattened, and used to produce something that can be exchanged for money. We have been in survival mode for a long time, fighting the complete erasure of our communities except as interesting footnotes to history. In my lifetime, this narrative has begun to shift, but indigenous people wrestle daily to overcome the trauma of near-erasure.

Part of the struggle involves remembering that our knowledge is valuable and that our landscapes have inherent worth. My interactions with indigenous leaders and community members focus on specific opportunities to bring our knowledges and concerns to the forefront of regulatory proceedings and even public discourse. When indigenous peoples speak into environmental policy and decision-making spaces, and when their voices are taken seriously, we can all have healthier, cleaner environments. We will also end up with stronger indigenous governments and institutions.

In North Carolina, American Indians struggle to have their collective voices heard because most tribes lack full recognition by the federal government. Decision-makers are legally excused from considering the unique environmental and cultural concerns of American Indian tribes that lack full recognition. However, indigenous peoples’ unique connections to specific landscapes are not determined by their recognition status. North Carolina tribal governments understand this point very well, and it has also been affirmed by UNDRIP and federal advisory bodies within the US. I aim to teach (and sometimes remind) decision-makers about the importance of indigenous perspectives, and to equip indigenous organizations and tribal governments with scholarship and practical knowledge useful for amplifying their voices. My work on flawed environmental justice analyses, climate change in the Lumbee community and historical environmental connections between Lumbee people and their river collectively aims to elevate indigenous knowledges in ways that address specific issues faced by tribal communities today.

MG: What do you hope students, faculty, and other community members will take away from your talk?

RE: Indigenous peoples never left North Carolina. In fact, North Carolina has the largest American Indian population in the eastern United States. Our communities are thriving across the state and elsewhere, but they face unique threats tied to the degradation and loss of culturally significant environments. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is one of the major threats, but it is also a symptom of the larger issue that is the erasure of indigenous peoples and the landscapes that we call home.

MG: What can people do to get involved/support this movement?

RE: Students, faculty, and other community members can become allies by learning more about our communities and finding ways to help us change the prevailing narrative that promotes the erasure of indigenous peoples from important discussions about energy and the environment. Powwow season is here, and powwows are one way to network with indigenous peoples and learn a little bit about our communities and cultures. UNC just held its powwow last weekend, and other university powwows are coming up – April 6 at NCSU and April 13 at Duke. These are public events, so plan to attend and engage, respectfully, to learn more about indigenous peoples from North Carolina and elsewhere.

Listen carefully to public discourse surrounding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other major infrastructure slated for traditional and contemporary indigenous territories. Find out whether and how regulators and developers include indigenous perspectives in their decision-making for pipelines and other projects. Insist that state and federal agencies follow standards outlined in UNDRIP and elsewhere, and hold them accountable when they don’t. Doing these things will help ensure that indigenous voices are at the table when decisions are made that affect our communities and environments.