State regulators declined Friday to grant a stay on construction of Enbridge's new pipeline across northern Minnesota, leaving little recourse to stop work on the $2.6 billion project while court appeals of key approvals and permits are pending.

"Operation of the existing Line 3 is more likely to cause harm than construction of the project," said Minnesota Public Utilities Commissioner Valerie Means, explaining her vote against the stay. "The commission has determined that replacing an old, aging pipeline is the safest option for protecting the environment and Minnesota communities."

The move came on a day when about 1,000 workers were ending the first week of work and protesters gathered at two work sites.

A pair of protesters camped out in trees in Aitkin County and dozens gathered at a job site near Cloquet to disagree with that sentiment as the legal means of stopping the pipeline are now in the hands of the slow-moving Court of Appeals. It could be several weeks at a minimum before the court could intervene in the project and months before the case is decided.

"The PUC's predictable actions today again demonstrate that the regulatory process in Minnesota is brazenly pro-oil industry," said Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke, who joined several other self-described "water protectors" near a planned Mississippi River pipeline crossing on Friday. "Without a stay, Line 3 would be constructed before the court could determine if the PUC broke the law, making the case moot."

One of the protesters who climbed a tree set to be cleared to make way for the pipeline, 22-year-old Liam DelMain of Minneapolis, said: "I am here, putting my body on the line, because I have been left with no other choices."

The commission issued its final approvals for the Line 3 replacement project earlier this year — and a final construction OK earlier this week after key permits were approved last month. The project had been winding its way through the regulatory process for nearly six years.

The vote Friday was at the behest of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

"This commission worked in partnership with federal, state, tribal and local units of government to permit the replacement of a 50-year-old-plus pipe," said PUC Chairwoman Katie Sieben. "Should the new pipeline not be constructed, emissions from the extraction of this product will still occur, the oil will still cross Minnesota."

Enbridge began construction on the Minnesota portion of the pipeline this week after receiving its final permit on Monday. The portions in Canada, North Dakota and Wisconsin are already built.

Already, about 1,000 workers have reported to job sites along the 340-mile route across northern Minnesota, and 1,000 more are expected to start work next week, said lawyers for trade unions working on the project.

The project will employ more than 4,000 people at its peak and is expected to wrap up before the end of 2021. It is one of the largest Minnesota construction projects in recent history.

Commissioners said halting construction now would be harmful to the workers. Means said the project is "beneficial to Minnesota's economy, particularly during the pandemic."

Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge celebrated Friday's decision.

"We hope all parties will now accept the outcome of this thorough, science-based review of Line 3," the company said in a statement.

The protests launched Friday, along with a call to action planned for next week, suggest the fight will continue.

Several dozen Indigenous activists gathered near Cloquet on Friday and were "exercising their treaty rights to perform Anishinaabe cultural practices including smudging, making tobacco ties, and praying," according to a news release from the Line 3 Media Collective, which said the gathering is "part of an ongoing Indigenous-led battle on the front lines of construction."

Enbridge said in a statement the company recognizes the rights of individuals and groups to express their views "peacefully and legally," but safety is its first concern.

"We don't tolerate illegal activities of any kind, including trespassing, vandalism or other mischief, and Enbridge will seek to prosecute those individuals to the fullest extent of the law," the statement said.

The pipeline will carry about 760,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wis. It follows a largely new route across the state due in part to an agreement to keep the pipeline off the Leech Lake Reservation, which several Enbridge pipelines currently cross.

Attorneys for the Red Lake and White Earth bands brought up concerns over the spread of COVID-19 as workers pour into rural areas that may not have the capabilities to handle a surge in cases. In a letter to Gov. Tim Walz this week, White Earth Band Chairman Michael Fairbanks wrote the project "poses a significant problem to the health and well-being of tribal members."

"It is in the best interest for the safety, and even the survival, of White Earth tribal members and families … to place a moratorium on Enbridge's Line 3 construction work, at least until substantial vaccine-related community COVID protection levels have clearly been reached," the letter said.

Commissioner Matt Schuerger, the lone vote in favor of a stay, said he found that without a pause in construction there could be "irreparable harm to the tribes."

"Enbridge is likely to complete Line 3 before the Court of Appeals can issue a decision," he said.

Commissioner John Tuma, who said during Friday's meeting he has had COVID-19, said the governor's emergency powers are clear and he "doesn't need this commission nipping" at the administration over coronavirus concerns.

Enbridge earlier this week said it has strict safety protocols in place for the project, including testing, masking and social distancing.

The Laborers' International Union of North America said assertions the virus would be spread by workers "are particularly speculative and disrespectful to our members who work in the construction industry, which has proven itself to be capable of operating safely — sustaining the state's economy and ensuring the continuation of health coverage for tens of thousands of families," marketing manager Kevin Pranis said in a statement.

Enbridge said in its statement that "the Line 3 replacement project has passed every test."

"The project is already providing significant economic benefits for counties, small businesses, Native American communities and union members," the company said.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496