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President Richard Nixon fumbled the first energy crisis in 1973. The oil-producing countries that formed OPEC wanted to control the price of oil and cut off supply to create scarcity with the hope that this would increase the price per barrel. America had no concerns about oil supply prior to the embargo—resources appeared to be limitless—but being cut off from the lifeblood that was at the very center of the modern economy forced the country to face its vulnerability.

In a normal market when demand for a resource is consistent—oil has a very low price elasticity—prices rise when the resource becomes limited. Energy prices at this time were fixed by the government and reviewed infrequently. The combination of artificially low prices and manufactured scarcity set the stage for national chaos.  Gasoline was rationed, people waited in gas lines for hours, fistfights at gas stations were frequent and theories of peak oil proliferated. Americans have rarely faced scarcity and this event created a vivid memory nearly as strong as the Great Depression. The specter of energy shortage haunted every presidential administration after Nixon, and few presidents have made a concerted effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Jimmy Carter failed to mandate a 20% solar power contribution to the energy mix. One might argue that the technology was neither efficient nor affordable enough to achieve that lofty goal but the country may have exceeded it in the 4 decades that followed. Instead the country became more dependent on fossil fuels and even went to war in the Middle East to protect access to oil. The “crisis” was over when Ronald Reagan was elected. On his first day in office he removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House in a symbolic rejection of renewable energy.

The oil embargo left a lasting impression, but the wrong one. America had not faced an energy shortage. In fact, there are more known oil reserves than can be used without destroying the biosphere. Economist Vaclav Smil confirmed that, “our reliance on coal and hydrocarbons and the rise of nonfossil energy will not take place because of physical exhaustion of accessible fossil fuels but… because of the mounting cost of their extraction and, even more importantly, because of environmental consequences of their combustion.”

The protesters at Standing Rock were fighting the pipeline to protect their ecosystem, but they should look north at the source of crude oil for a graver concern. The Bakken Formation straddles North Dakota and Canada and oil deep in the bedrock can only be extracted with the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This extraction will continue whether or not the pipeline is completed.

Crude oil from the U.S. portion of the Bakken Formation is being extracted in one of the most environmentally insensitive ways. Fracking involves the high-pressure injection of 2-8 million gallons of water mixed with chemicals up to 8,000 feet deep into the earth’s crust. This pushes the oil out of the bedrock. The wastewater is left in the ground, below the aquifer, leaving open the probability of water table contamination. The waste water disposal wells have been linked to an increase in earthquakes, particularly in Oklahoma which had 907 magnitude 3 or higher earthquakes in 2015. The new oil fields have created numerous logistical problems including how to get the oil to the market. Several transnational and interstate pipeline projects have been developed to speed crude oil to the market and feed the world’s insatiable appetite for cheap fuel. Environmental objections have blocked some of the projects, most recently the Keystone XL pipeline, because a spill would be catastrophic, especially if dispersed into a body of water. Crude oil is toxic and nearly impossible to remove without harsh chemicals that amplify toxicity to the ecosystem. Oil spills from the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon have caused significant damage and destroyed the aquaculture, animal life, and livelihoods of the people in the impacted areas.

Even including recent advances in domestic production the U.S still imports 9.4 million barrels of oil per day, with 31% of it coming from OPEC. The American oil and gas industry, with the full support of the government, is encouraging dependence on fossil fuels for their financial gain at the expense of water resources and regional ecosystems, and the much larger global risk of climate change.

The Environmental Protection Agency calculated that fossil fuel consumption is the primary cause of GHG emissions in the U.S. Scientific consensus has shown the linkage between GHG emissions and the increase in the earth’s average temperature, which is causing climate change. To counter this effect the world’s countries, in partnership with the United Nations, agreed to GHG emissions reductions in the Paris Agreement. The US voluntarily set an emissions reduction target of 26-28% by 2025, a sensible target that they are unlikely to hit.

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 EPA 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.

The definition of sustainable development, which was established in Our Common Future, is that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Rather than focus our attention on the real crisis, reducing the use of fossil fuels and exploring less environmentally impactful fuel alternatives, we are continuing our dependence and paying huge environmental and social consequences. In this one case the oil extraction process is destroying millions of gallons of water, local aquifers, risking environmental damage from spills, creating the potential for earthquakes, threatening the health and livelihood of the local population, the Missouri River, and other areas along the four states that the pipeline traverses, and will add GHG emissions to the atmosphere for the next 40 years, increasing climate change.

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?

Image Credit: efergy