Ethics Case Study: Dakota Access Pipeline

In 2014, Energy Transfer Partners began a pipeline construction project that would transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to refineries in the Gulf Coast [1]. The pipeline was routed to come within a half-mile of the current boundaries of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation, crossing underneath the Missouri River. According to the tribe, the pipeline crosses through ancient burial grounds and cultural sites [2]. The permits for the pipeline were approved by the Army Corps of Engineers in July 2016 based on a fast-tracked environmental review, but the Tribe sued the Corps, arguing that the pipeline “threatens the Tribe’s environmental and economic well-being, and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significance to the Tribe” [1].

Proponents of the pipeline suggest that transporting oil via pipeline is safer than transporting it via truck or rail. Indeed, from 2005 to 2009, the rate of hospitalization for pipeline workers was 30 times lower than that for rail workers [3]. Energy Transfer Partners has assured the public that the pipeline is safe, stating that it “was designed with tremendous safety factors and state of the art construction techniques and redundancies, including construction and engineering technology that meet or exceed all safety and environmental regulations” [4]. But critics point out that approximately 280 “significant” pipeline spills occur in the U.S. every year, and that furthermore, these metrics include only human health and property damage, not environmental effects [3]. Indeed, the DAPL has already experienced two leaks, of 84 gallons in South Dakota and 100 gallons in North Dakota. Both spills have been cleaned up [5].

Energy Transfer Partners also states that the pipeline has created approximately 12,000 construction jobs over the course of the pipeline [7]. The Brookings Institution estimates that the project would create about 40 permanent, full-time jobs along the entire pipeline [8].

In protest of the pipeline, many Native tribes and other activists staged a massive protest at Cannon Ball River, near the proposed pipeline route. Many protesters were arrested, and photographs show local law enforcement training water cannons on protesters in below-freezing temperatures [9]. The protests appeared to be successful, for in 2016 President Obama ordered Energy Transfer Partners to halt construction on the pipeline while the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a full Environmental Impact Statement. Two days after he took office, President Trump reversed this order, allowing the pipeline to be completed. It is now operational. The Tribe immediately sued the Corps on the grounds that the environmental study had not been completed, and in June 2017, a federal judge ruled that the Corps “did not adequately consider the impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice” [10].

The Tribe makes three main legal claims against the siting of the pipeline. First, it argues that a full Environmental Impact Statement should have been required before permits were issued, but was not. Second, it argues that the U.S. is required to protect tribal lands and resources (including water) based on historical treaties. These treaties have a long history of being broken by the U.S., as it has repeatedly violated tribal sovereignty. In 1958, for example, valuable tribal land was flooded by the construction of the Lake Oahe dam [11]. Third, the Tribe argues that the Trump administration cannot legally simply overturn the Obama administration’s order to conduct the environmental review.

Tribal members also argue that the rights of Native tribes have long been disregarded by the energy industry. According to Native activist Winona LaDuke, “Nobody comes out here. And so stuff continues out here for a hundred years, where these people are treated like third-class citizens, you know, where they have no running water in their houses, and they have oil companies coming out here. And you have high rates of abuse and violence against women and children, and it accelerates and increases in the oil fields, until you have an epidemic of drugs, which now hits this community. This community doesn’t get any benefit from oil, but the meth and heroin that came out of those fields is here, you know?” [12]. Similarly, Native activist Nick Tilsen argues, “I mean, tribal communities have been the place where negative resource extraction—it’s been the place where pipelines go through. It’s been the place where they store nuclear waste. It’s the—the Native nations in this country have been the dumping grounds for the energy industry for a long time” [6].

As of this writing, the pipeline allowed to continue to operate while the environmental assessment is being conducted [5]. While the case makes its way through the courts, the Tribe is moving forward with plans to install solar and wind farms in Cannon Ball, to power their own homes with renewable energy and sell the power commercially [6].

Your Task
Identify the stakeholders affected by issue. Then, using multiple ethical theories (utility, rights, justice, care, and/or virtue), analyze the ethics of the pipeline to arrive at some conclusion about what should happen next. If the results of the ethical tests indicate contradictory conclusions, you will have to decide which test should take precedent. Rather than deciding which solution is “right” and “wrong,” you may also assess which is more right or more wrong. Feel free to read further about the issue using the references below.

Be creative in solving this dilemma. Is there a solution that could satisfy all or most of the stakeholders in an ethical way?

[1] H. Yan, ”Dakota Access Pipeline: What’s At Stake?” CNN 28 Oct. 2016. Available:
[2] D. Archambault II, “Taking a Stand at Standing Rock,” New York Times 24 Aug. 2016. Available:
[3] J. Conca, “Pick Your Poison for Crude—Pipeline, Rail, Truck or Boat,” Forbes 26 Apr. 2014. Available:
[4] Energy Transfer Partners, “The Dakota Access Pipeline is Safe, Efficient, and Environmentally Sound,” Dakota Access Pipeline Facts. 2017. Available:
[5] Associated Press, “A Timeline of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline,” ABC News 12 Oct. 2017. Available:
[6] Democracy Now! “Standing Rock’s Fight Against Dakota Access Pipeline Continues While Tribe Plans for a Fossil-Free Future,” 4 Jul. 2017. Available:
[7] Energy Transfer Partners, “The Dakota Access Pipeline Will Keep America Moving Efficiently and in an Environmentally Safe Manner,” Dakota Access Pipeline Facts. 2017. Available:
[8] D. Saha, “Five Things to Know About the North Dakota Access Pipeline Debate,” Brookings Institution. 14 Sept. 2016. Available:
[9] A. Taylor, “Water Cannons and Tear Gas Used Against Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters,” The Atlantic, 21 Nov. 2016. Available:
[10] “In Victory for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Court Finds that Approval of Dakota Access Pipeline Violated the Law,” Stand With Standing Rock, 14 Jun. 2017. Available:
[11] NYC Stands With Standing Rock, “#Standing Rock Syllabus,” Accessed 9 Jul. 2017. Available:
[12] Democracy Now! “Native American Activist Winona LaDuke at Standing Rock: It’s Time to Move on from Fossil Fuels,”, 12 Sep. 2016. Available:

Case study courtesy of Elisa Warford, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, Engineering Writing Program, University of Southern California.