The Ethics of the Dakota Access Pipeline

Hi everyone,

This was my final paper in my ethics class this past semester & I just thought I’d share my thoughts on this issue.

*Note* I know this does not encompass this entire issue, it was a 6-8 page paper, and I had to write this within some guidelines.



Jennifer V. Kurland

Water hoses being sprayed on peaceful protests was a game changer for the Civil Rights Movement when those images were broadcast to the public on TV. When similar, yet more brutal tactics were used on water protectors protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the media was missing in action. Native people in the United States are victims of genocide from the onset of our country’s founding, and still today struggle for the basic human rights supposedly guaranteed to all people under the Constitution. The Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction against the wishes of the Standing Rock Sioux is just one more injustice piled on to this sordid history. There is no ethical justification that would allow this pipeline to continue decimating the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s ancestral burial grounds and treaty territory.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands are located in North Dakota, one hour south of the capitol city of Bismarck, along the Missouri River. Initially, the pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, but due to potential threats to the local water supply and difficulty in that pathway in staying away from local homes the route was changed to go through the Sioux’s land south of the larger population after these issues were discovered (Dalrymple, 2016). The land in question was deeded to the Sioux by the Treaty of Fort Laramie signed in 1868; just a decade later, the government provoked a war and threatened the tribe to return the land they rightfully owned via the treaty (Meyer, 2016). The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the land had been taken without merit and ordered the government to give financial compensation to the tribe (Meyer, 2016). The Sioux have never accepted that financial payment, and ever since have been asking for their treaty land back in lieu (Meyer, 2016). There is a Federal rule that requires agencies to consult with tribes when doing any work on land that may be culturally or religiously significant no matter where the land is located (Meyer, 2016). The Standing Rock Sioux have legal jurisdiction over the water where the pipeline is supposed to cross the Missouri River by Lake Oahe (Ostler, 2017). This is not the first time the Federal government overstepped their authority and damaged Native lands; when the Oahe dam was built they were later ordered to provide financial compensation to the tribe due to damaging floods from the project (Ostler, 2017). The Sioux tribe insists they were not consulted on the initial construction for the Dakota Access, and that the pipeline crossed through their sacred sites outside of the reservation yet within disputed treaty land (Nicholson, 2016). They stand by their statements that they were not included during the historical survey, that the permit was rushed, and they were only given plans and notification at the end of the process when approval for the pipeline was nearly finalized (Meyer, 2016). There is significance to this history of the Federal government putting theirs and business’ interests over conflicting Native rights while making financial amends after the fact.

When the Sioux tribe were made aware of further violations of their treaty and water rights, they decided to take action. Native people and other water protectors established a camp near the construction site to peacefully protest the pipeline (Henry, 2016). The Sioux tribe surveyed the land and found historic sites as well as burial cairns that were subsequently destroyed by the pipeline company (Associated Presss, 2016). “ Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault II said in a statement that construction crews removed topsoil across an area about 150ft wide stretching for two miles” (Associated Press, 2016). The tribe had provided documents to the courts showing important historical archeological finds where the pipeline was going through (Meyer, 2016). “The tribe and its legal team say that less than 24 hours after evidence of the new sacred sites were provided to the court, the Dakota Access company began construction on those same exact sites, perhaps destroying many of them forever (Meyer, 2016). In December 2016, the final permit to drill under the Missouri River was denied by the Army Corps of Engineers in favor of conducting an environmental impact review (Henry, 2016). Tribal leaders and allies supported and lauded the Obama Administration’s decision to halt the pipeline to conduct the study (Henry, 2016). In January 2017, a Federal judge ruled in favor of an environmental impact statement over the wishes of the developer, Energy Transfer Partners (Henry, 2017). There are 17 million people who rely on the Missouri River for drinking water and live downstream from where the pipeline will be placed under Lake Oahe (Almasy, 2017). Any leak or break from the pipeline has the potential to contaminate up to 2,500 aquifers (Almasy, 2017). The argument from the Sioux is not just based on their needs and beliefs on clean water, but also for the protection of other people who also rely on the Missouri River for drinking water.

Business interests in the Dakota Access Pipeline have a lot riding on the completion of the project. The pipeline when completed will cross four states and carry crude oil to the tune of half a million barrels daily (Nicholson, 2016). “The developer estimates the pipeline would bring $156 million in sales and income taxes to state and local governments and will add 8,000 to 12,000 jobs (Almasy, 2017). When questioned by a Federal judge why the company wouldn’t halt work until they received final approval from the government, their response was that they were told permission was only a formality (Nicholson, 2016). The Obama Administration halted construction temporarily on one side of Lake Oahe, and for 20 miles on both sides of the Missouri River at the lake in September 2016 (Nicholson, 2016). In December 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers announced their denial of an easement for the pipeline to be built under Lake Oahe (Ostler, 2017). The Army Corps initially announced in January 2017 that they were accepting public comments through mid-February as part of their environmental impact assessment after their initial denial (Campbell, 2017). Energy Transfers publicly stated that incoming President Trump would likely change the ruling back to their favor, and that the pipeline would likely move forward (Henry, 2016). Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump issued an executive order to allow the pipeline to go through, and the Army Corps of Engineers reversed its decision under President Obama to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (Almasy, 2017). U.S. Representative Kevin Cramer, a Republican representing North Dakota issued a statement on the importance of energy infrastructure and praising president Trump’s commitment to the Dakota Access project among others (Campbell, 2017). Other officials seeming to support the construction of the pipeline included Senators John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp (Henry, 2016). There is a clear conflict of wants for the pipeline’s construction between the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the interests of business and the government.

The view of the Sioux tribe is multi-fold. They are opposed to how the pipeline was approved, that their sovereign rights were not respected, and how their sacred sites were treated by the pipeline company. They are also concerned with the issues of water safety and quality in case of an oil spill or leak from the pipeline, especially so since the project was seemingly rushed through. Their philosophy is more aligned with the ethical theories of utilitarianism and virtue. Ensuring that the actions of the government and the pipeline company are based on honesty and equity are built into their arguments in court regarding how the pipeline was approved without their consent and consult. They are also looking out for the good of the millions of people who live downstream from them who would also be negatively impacted by an oil spill. The view of the government is based on the deontological theory. Their decision-making is based on rules and standards they may have set, but are still rule-based. While the Army Corps of Engineers did reverse their decision for an environmental impact study, the decision stands nonetheless. The history of the government’s decision-making around the sovereignty of the Sioux tribe may be questionable, but still follows this theory. The government’s decision making is based on following their rules first, and allowing the judicial system to make amends later if necessary. Business interests are solely looking out for their profits and shareholder interests. While this falls slightly into the deontological theory framework of duty, it is more Machiavellian than anything. The final result matters most to the pipeline company and its investors, and they are willing to use any kind of force to ensure their interests are served.

I do not believe the final construction and changed decision of allowing the pipeline to be built is ethical under any theory. With a history of breaking treaties and disrespecting Native rights, our government and subsequently business interests have never looked out for the best interests of American citizens. The ethics of water as a human right fits into utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue theories. The need of water for survival is paramount to life which is why the echo of “Mini Wiconi” or “Water Is Life” has been echoed by water protectors from Standing Rock to Flint. The absence of clean drinking water anywhere will biologically lead to the deaths of those who live nearby. The additional ethics of upholding treaties and making reparations for the genocide and subsequent subjugation of Native people can be best described by deontology, by upholding the rule of law within those treaties and the civil rights given to the American people by the Constitution. My recommendation is to have the courts uphold the Standing Rock Sioux’s treaty, return their land, and to require a full environmental impact study to be done on the full pipeline project. It is not just the Sioux that is affected by this pipeline, but many millions more Americans who rely on the Missouri River for clean, safe, drinking water. It is our government’s responsibility to ensure all citizens have their civil and human rights respected.

The actions I have recommended would be effective, but it is much less likely that they will be followed. President Trump has made it quite clear that his commitment is not to clean, green infrastructure or civil rights, but to more oil and gas exploration over anything else. Our country has turned from a democratic republic into an oligarchy, and while the Obama Administration helped to halt the pipeline at the tail end of his term, both parties have been complicit in the continued construction of disastrous pipeline infrastructure. The Kalamazoo River is not the only place where oil spills have had disastrous consequences for a local watershed or supply. In December when the Dakota Access decisions were being made, a pipeline just west of the Sioux’s land had a spill of more than 176,000 gallons of crude oil (Hawkins, 2016). Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of the Dakota Access pipeline reported 42 spills with nearly 200,000 gallons of oil discharged and 35 pipeline accidents over a 2 year period (Hardy, 2017). The ethics of this case surely warrant additional investment in studying the impact of these spills and how they can affect watersheds across the United States. Until we all embrace the theories of utilitarianism and virtue to demand honesty and equity in all energy decisions and look at the greatest good based on the happiness of the general population instead of the financial interests of large corporations, Machiavelli’s principles will continue to rule our country.



Works Cited

Almasy, Steve. “Dakota Access Pipeline: Army Issues Final Permit.” CNN Politics. Cable News Network, 08 Feb. 2017. Web.

Associated Press in Bismarck, North Dakota. “North Dakota Pipeline Protest Turns Violent after Cultural Sites Destroyed.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 04 Sept. 2016. Web.

Campbell, Barbara. “Army Says It Is Expediting Review Of Dakota Access Pipeline Route.” NPR. NPR, 31 Jan. 2017. Web.

Dalrymple, Amy. “Pipeline Route Plan First Called for Crossing North of Bismarck.” Bismarck Tribune. The Bismarck Tribune, 18 Aug. 2016. Web.

Hardy, Kevin. “Spills Plague Dakota Access Pipeline Builders, Environmental Groups Find.” Des Moines Register. USA Today Network, 06 Feb. 2017. Web.

Hawkins, Derek. “Pipeline 150 Miles from Dakota Access Protests Leaks 176,000 Gallons of Oil.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 13 Dec. 2016. Web.

Henry, Devin. “Feds Deny Permit for Dakota Access Pipeline.” TheHill. Capitol Hill Publishing Corp, 04 Dec. 2016. Web.

Henry, Devin. “Judge Rules Dakota Access Study Can Move Forward.” TheHill. Capitol Hill Publishing Corp, 18 Jan. 2017. Web.

Meyer, Robinson. “The Legal Case for Blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Sept. 2016. Web.

Nicholson, Lucy. “Dakota Access Pipeline Company and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Interests Clash in Court.” RT International. Autonomous Nonprofit Organization TV Novosti, 5 Oct. 2016. Web.

Ostler, Jeffrey, and Nick Estes. “‘The Supreme Law of the Land’: Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Indian Country Today. Indian Country Today Media Network, 16 Jan. 2017. Web.


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