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  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  incorporates both consequentialist and deontological ideas. Firstly, let’s consider utilitarianism through the Greatest Happiness Principle . 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 , 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 ), 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 . Many argue that the rights  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 ’. 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  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 .
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  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 . 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 .
The Dakota Access Pipeline will use new, advanced technology  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 . 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.
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 . Do you agree with this? Please comment below to let us know your thoughts.