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Line 3 Protest Tests 2 of Biden’s Campaign Pledges

PARK RAPIDS, MINN. — The protesters who gathered in the boreal forests of Northern Minnesota came from across the country — Native American tribes and their supporters, environmentalists and religious leaders — all to fight an expansion of Line 3, a $9 billion pipeline operated by the Canadian company, Enbridge, that would carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil through Minnesota’s delicate watersheds and tribal lands.

Some said they had come ready to risk arrest by lying down in the path of construction. Others said they were here to support tribes that have been battling oil and gas pipelines for years, including the highly contentious Dakota Access Pipeline.

Late on Monday, the arrests began, after dozens of activists used an old fishing boat, bamboo and steel cable to blockade the road to a construction site off Highway 71 north of Park Rapids. Several hundred others scaled the wall of a nearby pump station and occupied the site, some climbing atop diggers and transformer boxes or chaining themselves to construction equipment, before starting to move up the highway.

“Law enforcement officers broke through the steel fences and they just began arresting everyone,” said Tara Houska, a tribal attorney and member of the Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe along the Canadian border. Riot police arrived with buses and appeared to have arrested about 50 people, she said. “This is an act of violence on tribal land.”

Local police had earlier dispatched a helicopter to try to disperse the crowd at the pump station, kicking up clouds of dust. .

John Elder, a spokesman for the Northern Lights Task Force, a team of police officers at the site, said it would be a few hours before he could give further details on the arrests. The Northern Lights Task Force is funded by Enbridge as mandated by the state’s approval of the project.

Over the weekend and into Monday, some 2,000 people took part in drum circles and prayer gatherings, and surveyed the network of construction sites that dot the woods. Near La Salle Lake, a small group of protesters late in the day began setting up about half a dozen tents, saying they would camp there indefinitely to prevent Enbridge from digging into the Mississippi River’s headwaters nearby.

“Taking care of the water is our responsibility, and we take that responsibility seriously,” said Winona LaDuke, executive director and a co-founder of Honor the Earth, a Native environmental advocacy organization that is a lead group opposed to the pipeline. “We’ve been at this fight against Enbridge for seven years already. It’s like an invasion.”

Behind the scenes, they said, Native lawyers have been urging the Biden administration to intervene. They are trying to flex a newfound political clout among tribal nations — Native Americans now hold important positions within the Biden administration — and say they intend to hold Mr. Biden to his campaign promises on racial equity, particularly for their communities.

The project, which received its final approvals under President Trump, is a 340-mile rerouting of a wider pipeline network. Once completed, it would carry 760,000 barrels of tar-sands oil a day from Alberta, Canada, across northern Minnesota and into Wisconsin to the tip of Lake Superior.

In April, Enbridge’s chief executive, Al Monaco, said Line 3 was on schedule to be completed by the end of the year. Native American tribes see the construction as a violation of their tribal sovereignty, an issue that President Biden explicitly pledged to prioritize during his campaign.

The pipeline would pass through treaty-protected tribal lands, they stress, including watersheds that support wild rice, a staple food and important cultural heritage of the Ojibwe People. And in the event of a spill, the heavy oil traveling through the pipeline could sink to the bottom of rivers and streams, complicating a cleanup, environmental groups warn.

In recent years, protesters in Minnesota and across the country have faced a growing number of local bills, backed by the oil and gas industry, that in many cases would make trespassing on or impeding the operation of pipelines and other infrastructure a felony. Minnesota has not yet passed such a bill, but since construction began at Line 3 in December, the Enbridge-funded police, Northern Lights Task Force, have arrested more than 70 protesters since construction began on Dec. 1, according to a task force tally.

The Line 3 expansion also tests the Biden administration’s commitment to climate policy.

In his first week as president, Mr. Biden signed an executive order vowing to address climate change, rejoined the Paris climate agreement among the nations of the world, and canceled another pipeline, the Keystone XL, which would also have brought tar-sands oil, one of the dirtiest forms of energy, from Canada. He also recently suspended oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

At the same time, the Biden administration has defended a huge Trump-era drilling project and has taken other actions that could guarantee the drilling and burning of oil and gas for decades. And the president has so far stayed silent on Line 3, which would carry enough oil that, when burned, would add nearly 200 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year during the pipeline’s lifetime, according to the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement. That’s the equivalent impact of annual emissions from 45 coal-fired power plants, or 38 million cars.

“Particularly from a climate standpoint, the case for a brand-new, massive tar-sands pipeline is extremely thin and frankly nonexistent,” said Moneen Nasmith, an attorney with the environmental legal organization, EarthJustice, which is challenging the pipeline.

“We recognize people have strong feelings about the energy we all use, and they have the right to express their opinions legally and peacefully,” Michael Barnes, a spokesman for Enbridge, said in an email. “We hoped all parties would come to accept the outcome of the thorough, science-based review and multiple approvals of the project. Line 3 has passed every test through six years of regulatory and permitting review,” he said.

So far, protests have had little effect on construction, which began in December and was 60 percent complete, he said.

Built in the 1960s, the current crude oil pipeline has been beset with corrosion, leaks and spills, forcing Enbridge in 2008 to reduce its capacity by half, to 390,000 barrels a day. In 2015, Enbridge cited corroding pipes and future oil demand to say it would reroute Line 3, a move that would allow it to restore its original capacity.

Opponents have tried a number of legal challenges. A decision is expected this month in one case, filed in Minnesota state court by tribes and environmental groups, which has focused on whether Enbridge carried out an adequate environmental review.

Two other cases challenge the project’s permits, issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, under the Clean Air Act. Opponents argue that the Army Corps failed to fully consider how an oil spill would affect the Lake Superior watershed.

Native lawyers and lobbyists have also been working their Washington connections. Late last month, Ms. Houska, the tribal attorney, pressed top Biden officials on what she saw as policy hypocrisy: Having canceled Keystone XL, how could the administration then allow Line 3 to go forward?

“This is a huge project with huge climate implications,” Ms. Houska said she told Gina McCarthy, the White House domestic climate adviser, and David Hayes, who advises Mr. Biden on land and water use policy. “You can’t cancel Keystone and then build an almost identical tar sands pipeline,” she said.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the meeting.

Tribal leaders are hoping that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who made history as the first Native American Cabinet member, will also be influential in Mr. Biden’s decision on the Enbridge pipeline.

Ms. Haaland’s public views on oil pipelines are well known: In 2016, Ms. Haaland joined the Standing Rock Sioux protesters in North Dakota who camped out for months in opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department declined to comment on the role that Ms. Haaland might play in determining the fate of Line 3.

Meanwhile, one of the most senior officials with authority to determine whether pipeline permits could be reviewed or rescinded is Jaime Pinkham, the Army Corps of Engineers’ acting Assistant Secretary of Civil Works, who is a member of the Pacific Northwest’s Nez Perce Tribe. In 2016, Mr. Pinkham co-wrote an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune opposing the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers said Mr. Pinkham is scheduled to meet with tribal members later this month at their request.

“The point has been for a long time to get to at least where we had the ear of those who were making decisions of consequence on tribal sovereignty,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, a Native activist who played a key role in the campaign urging Mr. Biden to nominate Secretary Haaland. “Hopefully that means that more of these decisions will be made to the benefit and with respect for tribal sovereignty.”