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Thousands of people, including environmentalists, American war veterans, and indigenous people representing over 300 native tribes, joined the Standing Rock Sioux Indians in a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The pipeline is a $3.7 billion project that will run 1,172 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, allowing an average of 520,000 barrels of crude oil per day to be transported from oil fields in North Dakota to repositories in Illinois. Energy Transfer Partners LLC, the company responsible for the project, worked with state governments to minimize environmental impact by shifting the pipeline’s path away from large cities including Bismarck, and to run in parallel with existing pipelines where possible. The company spent over $189 million in direct payment to landowners for easement payments. In some cases the company was empowered by state government to invoke eminent domain when it could not reach an agreement with landowners and forced their way forward.

The Sioux claimed they were not adequately engaged in planning and began a protest in April, 2016, by camping out in an informal settlement known as Sacred Rock. The number of protesters increased when the tribe’s legal injunction to stop the project was ignored. The pipeline moved forward with the assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who reportedly destroyed the ancient burial site of a tribal leader to avoid delays posed by an archaeological investigation. The protest grew to thousands during the fall of 2016, and shocking images of law enforcement using rubber bullets, water cannons, attack dogs, and pepper spray against unarmed protesters garnered international attention.

The objective of the Water Protectors—the name chosen by the protesters—was to block the granting of an easement that would allow the pipeline to pass under Lake Oahe, which feeds the Missouri River and threatens the health of millions along the river, as well as the fragile Ogallala Aquifer, the Sioux’s sole water source. Any project that could potentially threaten the water supply normally requires an environmental-impact statement, but Energy Transfer Partners structured the pipeline into 21 smaller projects to avoid this requirement. The protesters got their wish on December 4th when the U.S. Army Corps requested that the impact study be conducted before the easement can be granted, a process that could take more than 6 months. This victory may be short lived. The pipeline is nearly complete and President-elect Trump has voiced his approval for the completion of the pipeline; many protesters refused to leave and are digging in for the winter.

The standoff poses many ethical questions, including environmental justice, ecological integrity, social justice, as well as the socioeconomic and cultural concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux. This case also provides a lens to view the ethics of the U.S. energy policy which is enabling environmental damage caused by the extraction, transportation, and use of crude oil. The Sioux are protecting the water, cultural legacy and the environment as sacred resources while the U.S. is pursuing an energy policy that places the economy above all else.

There are over 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the U.S. and the DAPL will transport 520,000 barrels of oil per day for approximately 40 years, or 7.5 billion barrels of oil. According to the Enviromental Protection Agency there are 0.43 metric tons CO2 per barrel of crude oil. Oil from this pipeline would add approximately 3.2 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, which does not include emissions generated by extraction and refining. Carbon emissions impact the atmosphere for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Although this oil will still find a way to get from the production fields in North Dakota to refineries in the south of the US, some of which will be exported to the highest bidder—not ensuring energy independence, only the largest profit for oil and gas companies. The pipeline only expedites this process. It can be argued that leaving it in the ground should be the default option because of the environmental consequences. Instead the Sioux are facing another round of brutality at the hands of the U.S. government, who are protecting the rights of an industry, not the people. It is socially ethical to continue exploring for new oil and gas reserves, and exploiting existing ones, at significant financial and environmental costs instead of focusing our resources on an alternative energy strategy before climate change is irreversible?

Fossil fuels will remain a large part of the energy mix, and some sectors, such as aviation, do not have any known alteratives. The DAPL and many other pipelines being built across the United States and Canada will continue to supply the insatiable demand for cheap energy for decades, long after it becomes necessary for the world to step down fossil fuel consumption. Until this relationship ends there may not be any significant progress on alternatives. It is critical for the world to begin an energy transition to alternative fuels to protect the environment and the current economy.

As the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, remarked, “We are the first generation to be able to end poverty, and the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to uphold our moral and historical responsibilities.” The ethical choices made today will determine the options our children with have in the future.

Image Credit: Rezpect Our Water