Dakota Access Pipeline, or Access Denied?

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a proposed pipeline in the US, designed to carry approximately 470,000 barrels of oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. However, as part of this 1172-mile route (shown below), the DAPL will run under Lake Oahe in the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation. Hence, the pipeline has been met by immense competition from more than 200 Native American tribes and thousands of environmentalists worldwide. In this blog, we will use the ethical cycle [1] to discuss the issues surrounding this controversial project. For brevity, we will only consider issues specific to the DAPL project, rather than the use of oil in general.



There are two main aspects of the project which have provoked public outcry and can be considered in an ethical context: the potential environmental effects of the project and the encroachment of the pipeline on the grounds and water supply of the local Sioux tribes. The former is best considered in the framework of environmental ethics, while the latter is largely a deontological issue.

Environmental ethics [2] incorporates both consequentialist and deontological ideas. Firstly, let’s consider utilitarianism through the Greatest Happiness Principle [3]. This is difficult enough when the pipeline is operating normally – how can you balance the happiness created through cheaper oil and increased revenue against the sadness of the residents due to the disturbance of their homeland? However, when the potential for pipeline failure is considered, the balance appears to swing against it. The pain caused by an oil spill, due to disrupted water supplies and damaged farmland, would likely exceed any happiness otherwise brought about by the pipeline. The pipeline operator, Sunoco Logistics, has also reported 203 onshore crude leaks since 2010 [4], which is more than any other major company.

The DAPL becomes even less acceptable when its effects on non-human stakeholders are accounted for. These are considered under a deontological framework, calling for respect for animal lives and habitats. The former would be greatly threatened by pipeline failure (the 2010 Deepwater Horizon leak killed an estimated 800,000 birds and 1000 dolphins [5]), while the latter would be adversely affected solely by the existence of the pipeline. Crucially, the area dissected by the pipeline also contains many endangered species, including pallid sturgeon and grey wolves.

The second ethical issue with the pipeline is its intrusion on the Sioux tribes at Standing Rock and Cheyenne River. These tribes maintain that the pipeline threatens their lands and water supply, as well as sites of both historical and religious significance. Whilst the relevant consequentialist arguments have been considered above, there is also a case to be made using Kant’s theory [6]. Many argue that the rights [7] of the Sioux to their ancestral land and way of life are not respected by the creation of the pipeline. This argument is strengthened by the claim that the pipeline’s current route only exists to minimise its impact on richer, predominantly white residents in a form of ‘environmental racism [8]’. This means that the pipeline also fails the virtue approach, by failing to treat all equally.


Despite the immense opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, there are many strong arguments in favour of its completion. It is estimated that the project would create somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 local jobs [9] during construction; whilst generating $156 million in sales and income taxes, and a further $55 million annually in property taxes. Meanwhile, the 470,000 barrels of oil transported by the pipeline every day would go some way to reducing the gap between oil production and consumption in the US, which remains the largest consumer of crude oil in the world today [10].

From a utilitarian viewpoint, the amount of people benefitting from the oil (including the US public, the oil companies, their employees and the US government) far exceeds the number of Native Americans in direct opposition to the project. Similarly, common sense alone suggests that the increased oil supply and reduced energy costs from laying the pipeline would considerably outweigh the disruption to the water supply of one Native American tribe. In fact, the pipeline exists more than 70 miles from the tribe’s water source, and does not cross Standing Rock Sioux reservation [11] land at any point. The DAPL would also be buried 92 feet below Lake Oahe, which is far deeper than the eight existing oil pipelines currently crossing the lake [12]. Hence, the negative impact upon the Native American tribes is negligible. It could even be argued that the tribal opposition stems from their desire to profit from the oil themselves [13].

The Dakota Access Pipeline will use new, advanced technology [14] to improve safety and reliability, making it one of the safest pipelines ever built. Meanwhile, pipelines have been proven to be the safest existing mode of oil transportation [15]. Thus the project supports the most important virtues of a responsible engineering company, including safety, striving for quality and innovation. Engineering codes of conduct also support the pipeline, as they encourage engineers to hold public health, safety and wellbeing in the highest regard. Furthermore, the company claims that the DAPL would eradicate 500-740 rail carriages (or 250+ trucks) that must currently be used to transport the crude oil every day. This reduction in carbon emissions explains why the DAPL represents the most environmentally friendly way to transport oil in the region, and again upholds an engineer’s duty to act sustainably and responsibly.

Finally, although Kant’s theory is difficult to apply in this particular case, one could interpret it by considering the impact of using only pipelines to transport all oil worldwide. In this sense, Kantian ethics again support the pipeline, due to its safety benefits over alternative transportation methods.

Protestors Image 2.jpg


In summary, there are compelling arguments both for and against the project and no clear solution exists which would satisfy all stakeholders. Despite pending law suits, the project was recently completed and oil is now flowing through the DAPL [16]. Do you agree with this? Please comment below to let us know your thoughts.



[1] http://aerostudents.com/files/ethics/theEthicalCycle.pdf


[2] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-environmental/

[3] http://parenethical.com/phil140win11/tag/greatest-happiness-principle/

[4] http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-usa-pipeline-nativeamericans-safety-i-idUKKCN11T1UW

[5] http://america.aljazeera.com/blogs/scrutineer/2015/4/20/today-marks-5-years-since-the-start-of-the-bp-deepwater-horizon-disaster.html

[6] http://www.csus.edu/indiv/g/gaskilld/ethics/kantian%20ethics.htm

[7] http://sacredstonecamp.org/blog/2016/8/10/spirit-camp-warriors-stand-in-path-of-the-dakota-access-pipeline

[8] http://oberlinreview.org/12010/opinions/dakota-access-pipeline-latest-case-of-environmental-racism/


[9] http://landowners.daplpipelinefacts.com

[10] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2246rank.html

[11] https://daplpipelinefacts.com/dt_articles/is-the-dakota-access-pipeline-on-public-or-private-land/

[12] https://daplpipelinefacts.com/dt_articles/pipelines-lake-oahe/

[13] http://fuelfix.com/blog/2014/04/23/north-dakota-tribes-oil-output-rivals-us-states/

[14] https://daplpipelinefacts.com/safety/

[15] https://www.manhattan-institute.org/pdf/ib_23.pdf

Further Remarks:

[16] http://uk.businessinsider.com/ap-what-completed-dakota-access-pipeline-means-for-key-players-2017-3?r=US&IR=T/#the-company-1


19 thoughts on “Dakota Access Pipeline, or Access Denied?

  1. Dakota access pipeline has been a leading figure in the protests. Aboriginal and environmentalists tried to stop construction of the Dakota tubing, the pipeline through the holy land of Native American, posing a danger to the local water supply. Besides, oil infrastructure and further development also demonstrated threat to climate. The protesters began to reserve and encamped in the standing rock Sioux from April 2016, after the police and contradiction. Although it provided access for American citizens and created economic value to some extent. Personally, I objected this project due to a great deal of damages on environments and native citizens that was not consistent with sustainable development.


  2. The Trump government finally approved the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline , which meant that this was line with the interests of the vast majority of Americans, otherwise, this project will not be approved at all. From this point, it definitely accords with utilitarian theory of responsibility. Although Dakota Access Pipeline was opposed by Aboriginal and environmentalists, in fact, the government has tried it best to ensure the safety of Dakota Access Pipeline and minimize the damages by using advanced technology. Therefore, I agree with Dakota Access Pipeline.


  3. I against to do this project. The most benefit of this project is the economy benefit. For this part, the profit create by this project and the evironment danage by it are difficult to judge which is larger. And even using the lad test technology, there also are possibility of failure. Like Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant. For the job benefit, if using pipe to transfer oil, a lot people like the truckers also will lose job. Furthermore, the period during construct the pipes also can impact the local environment.


  4. An interesting read. The pipeline went ahead – I hope Sunoco Logistics returned the land to it’s previous state following the laying of the pipeline and have an ongoing commitment to maintaining the natural habitats and overall aesthetics of the land. The pipeline being laid at greater depth is seen as a good thing but would surely cause even greater disruption if there were leaks that had to be found and repaired in the future (the company doesn’t seem to have a good track record). It is good that less overland transportation is being used to get the oil from A to B in terms of less carbon emissions but on the other hand that would also mean a loss of jobs locally (Lorry drivers etc) that would have offered regular employment rather than the temporary employment available during the construction of the pipeline. It would be interesting to know what the communities thoughts are now that the project is completed. A thought provoking blog – thank you.


  5. As a prospective engineer I found the ethical points you brought up very insightful and gave me a clear understanding of the view points one must consider when discussing an engineering project. I could concur with both sides as you gave a well balanced argument for both not building and building the DAPL. Although I most likely agreed with the construction of the DAPL due to the many positives given for the DAPL it seemed like most of the arguments you gave against the DAPL were later contradicted by your for argument. This evidently led me to agree with construction of the DAPL due to the numerous positives given for the establishment of the DAPL and the limited negatives for its construction.


  6. Clearly a complex issue with a combination of engineering based concerns over safety and environmental impacts countered by equally strident engineering based assurances. Additionally there are vested and highly significant financial interests from a number of stakeholders on both sides of the arguments. The article draws on a variety of sources, some with a greater degree of independence than others. The arguments from both perspectives are usefully articulated against the utilitarian model. It would have been interesting to have a further expansion of the use of the ‘ethical cycle model’ in the conclusion.


  7. That’s a very interesting outline of the whole issue. Personally, I’d be against the pipeline and I’m on the side of the Native American tribes. For me the cultural heritage is the most important part of the matter and it should be respected and protected.


  8. A thought provoking and insightful article – thank you for sharing! It is clearly an intricate matter largely dominated by Trump’s government and various other stakeholders. I felt that both sides of the argument were clearly defined, highlighting some important topics for further consideration, in particular consequentialist and deontological ideas. In my opinion, I feel that ultimately the Dakota Access Pipeline should be built, and this is predominately due to the benefits that it brings to the American economy; even more so as there have been a multitude of safety checks put into place to ensure all damages are minimised.


  9. Nice article. I totally agree with the project , because it gives a lots of advantages especially when it comes to the environment. It could reduce the carbon emissions which I believe it can minimize all problematic issues related to the global warming, climate changes and so forth that we are facing now. About the other points, such as creating many jobs to the people, it is a great idea and hence, able to boost the economy. About the safety, I am sure, the DAPL has a very good safety due to the advance technology nowadays. As an electrical engineering student, I agree with this project. However, we still need to consider the opinions from the oppositions. Therefore, we can improve the project and overcome or minimize the weakness.


  10. The utilitarian perspective is the one which dominates the majority of public and private policy decisions not only in the US but also here in the U.K. In a complex ethical arena such as the one outlined in your paper it is an ethical approach that, in principle, overrides the interests/ concerns of any one particular group in favour of the ‘ greatest good for the greatest number’. Of course, this brings with it the fact that you are working on the basis of ‘guessed’ , rather than ‘known’ outcomes. For example, one guesses that the risks of some serious environmental disaster are highly unlikely on the basis of advances in engineering/safety and surveillance technologies. As such, proponents using a utilitarian model will argue that their predictions about the safety of the scheme are in no sense based on a ‘random’ guess. It was interesting to note that the original pipeline route was altered after concerns about the potential effects on the predominately white Bismarck neighbourhood . It would be interesting to find out what, if any, time effort and resources we dedicated to examining other potential routes which did not compromise the interests of any one particular group. My understanding is that this was the preferred way forward under the Obama regime.


    1. Thanks Tom. I agree, I think utilitarianism is useful for painting an overall picture of the case – but it has a number of downfalls. With this in mind, we tried to use a few different ethical frameworks (e.g. utilitarianism, Kant’s theory and virtue ethics) to look at the DAPL from different angles. So I appreciate you introducing me to ethical egoism – it is not something I had come across before and it casts a different light on the project. I’d be really interested to hear what your own views on the DAPL are?


  11. Thanks for this.

    A good, punchy article, well framed and in the main well referenced as an academic piece. I only have one minor observation, from the early lines below:

    “The former is best considered in the framework of environmental ethics, while the latter is largely a deontological issue. Environmental ethics [2] incorporates both consequentialist and deontological ideas.

    Firstly, let’s consider utilitarianism through the Greatest Happiness Principle [3].”

    (In alphabetical order) consequentialism, deontology and utilitarianism are fairly hefty philosophical tools (I think) and while I could form a working picture of a what a “Mallet” is, I’d have to go and look up what a “Cross & Straight Pein” is all about, so to speak.

    So perhaps a few introductory remarks about the core of those concepts are would have helped me (I’m talking philosophy, not types of hammer!).

    Thank you and all the best,



  12. Quite a well balance argument rather spoilt by academic elements that were presumably required by the assessors. Lines such as “Environmental ethics [2] incorporates both consequentialist and deontological ideas.”, quick frankly detract from the power of the review rather than add to it. I am not sure how many people have the slightest idea when Kant said.

    For a really punchy review I would ditch the academic baggage.


  13. Due to the eight pipes which already exist closer to the riverbed, I think the DAPL should go ahead as the pre-existing pipes render the Sioux tribes argument redundant. Any threats towards the tribes land and water supply is more likely to occur from the other eight pipes as the building of the DAPL includes an abundance of safety checks designed in order to eradicate any possible damages.


  14. I agree with the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
    The utilitarian / economic advantages far outweigh the environmental disadvantages.
    The fact that there are already 8 No shallower and less safe pipelines running beneath the lake, render the arguments against its construction almost meaningless.
    Presumably the construction company have reinstated the affected land to a high ecological standard and they have an ongoing responsibility to monitor the condition of the pipeline.
    A well written and thought provoking article.


  15. For me it is difficult to decide whether or not I am in favour of the construction of the pipeline as a standalone project. Presumably it is part of a much wider energy policy, which hopefully encompasses investment in renewable sources of energy as well. I am pleased to hear that the pipeline has used new innovative technology, but again, I hope that similar investment in terms of both time and resource is being made in renewable energy.
    The broader issue is what the best energy source is for the country now and in the future, and it would be interesting to consider this using the same ethical theories. Such discussion is likely to be much more theoretical in nature, but is important as a starting point before considering the individual merits of a project.
    An enjoyable read on a thought provoking issue.


  16. It is interesting to read such a balanced argument.

    As someone who believes strongly in environmental issues, and sympathises with all those who protested at standing rock, i had not researched any positive impacts.

    My opinion has been enlightened.

    And although i have an idealistic mind, this helps me find a little solace knowing there has been a greater environmental impact through the relief of oil traffic.

    Thank you.


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