By MATTHEW DALY and CHRIS MEGERIAN
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Biden administration said Monday it is approving the huge Willow oil-drilling project on Alaska's petroleum-rich North Slope, a major environmental decision by President Joe Biden that drew quick condemnation that it flies in the face of the Democratic president's pledges to slow climate change.
The announcement came a day after the administration, in a move in the other direction toward conservation, said it would bar or limit drilling in some other areas of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
The Willow approval by the Bureau of Land Management would allow three drill sites, which would include up to 199 total wells. Two other drill sites proposed for the project would be denied. Project developer ConocoPhillips has said it considers the three-site option workable, and company chairman and CEO Ryan Lance called the order "the right decision for Alaska and our nation."
Houston-based ConocoPhillips will relinquish rights to about 68,000 acres of existing leases in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The order, one of the most significant of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland's tenure, was not signed by her but rather by her deputy, Tommy Beaudreau, who grew up in Alaska and has a close relationship with state lawmakers. She was notably silent on the project, which she had opposed as a New Mexico congresswoman before becoming Interior secretary two years ago.
Climate activists were outraged that Biden approved the project, which they say put his climate legacy at risk. Allowing the drilling plan to go forward would be a major breach of Biden's campaign promise to stop new oil drilling on federal lands, they say.
However, administration officials were concerned that ConocoPhillips' decades-old leases limited the government's legal ability to block the project and that courts might have ruled in the company's favor.
Monday's announcement is not likely to be the last word, with litigation expected from environmental groups.
The Willow project could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, create up to 2,500 jobs during construction and 300 long-term jobs, and generate billions of dollars in royalties and tax revenues for the federal, state and local governments, the company said.
The project, located in the federally designated National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, enjoys widespread political support in the state. Alaska Native state lawmakers recently met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to urge support for Willow.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Monday the decision was "very good news for the country."
Environmental activists who have promoted a #StopWillow campaign on social media were fuming at the approval, which they called a betrayal.
"This decision greenlights 92% of proposed oil drilling (by ConocoPhllips) and hands over one the most fragile, intact ecosystems in the world to" the oil giant, said Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen. "This is not climate leadership."
Alaska's bipartisan congressional delegation met with Biden and his advisers in early March to plead their case for the project, while environmental groups rallied opposition and urged project opponents to place pressure on the administration.
City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, has been outspoken in her opposition, worried about impacts to caribou and her residents' subsistence lifestyles. The Naqsragmiut Tribal Council, in another North Slope community, also raised concerns with the project.
But there is "majority consensus" in the North Slope region supporting the project, said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, whose members include leaders from across much of that region.