"A solid majority of Canadians" – including 65 percent of northerners surveyed – oppose offshore oil and gas drilling, a report commissioned by World Wildlife Fund Canada suggested this week, though recognition of drilling's economic benefits was said to be greater in the NWT than elsewhere.
The conservation group said research by polling company Environics showed "58 percent of people in the provinces and 65 percent in the territories want the current federal government ban on new oil and gas licences in Canada’s Arctic extended by another five years to 2026."
The Liberal government's moratorium on offshore oil and gas development proved profoundly unpopular with northern political leaders when instituted in 2016. The ban helped summon NWT Premier Bob McLeod's infamous 2017 "red alert," in which he used national television to urge a rethink of Ottawa's northern priorities.
This week, two of the territory's newly elected Beaufort Delta politicians echoed McLeod's criticism of the moratorium, appearing eager for oil and gas development to restart.
Environics, an established Toronto-based market research firm, said it polled 1,000 residents of the three territories, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut in June and July this year. That figure is a standard sample size for the polling industry, though the number of NWT residents among the thousand-strong group was not published.
Interviews with residents included questions about oil and gas, shipping, and caribou. Only the oil and gas results were released this week.
While Environics said two-thirds of northerners surveyed supported a five-year extension of the moratorium, only 32 percent of respondents strongly supported a permanent ban. A further 19 percent "somewhat support" a permanent ban, while 43 percent expressed some level of opposition.
Environics reported tallies for the three territories as a block, but did note: "The view that drilling should be allowed for its economic benefits is higher in the western provinces (40 percent) and the Northwest Territories (38 percent) than in other regions."
The survey's authors said their work carried a +/- 3.1 percentage-point margin of error at the 95-percent confidence level.
'Hurting our communities'
Publication of the survey came as the NWT's 19 new MLAs-elect began debating their priorities for the next four years of government. How to drive the economy, including development of oil and gas, is key to that discussion.
McLeod, who with other northern leaders adopted the withering refrain that Ottawa was "turning the North into a park," reported in late May that he expects the NWT government to assume shared management of offshore oil and gas in the near future.
This, he said, was a Devolution commitment from the federal government and would ensure the territory could block any attempt at extending the moratorium on development, which is due to expire in 2021.
"Canada’s unilateral federal moratorium on offshore oil and gas activity was imposed without any consultation," McLeod said in May. "This action underscored the importance of the GNWT seizing a role in decisions about NWT offshore oil and gas resources.
"We are in the very early stages of these negotiations, but that they have commenced is important."
Diane Thom called for 'a concerted effort' on resource development.
In the legislature this week, MLAs-elect setting out their visions for the NWT's future only rarely touched on the topic of offshore development.
Diane Thom, whose Inuvik Boot Lake district is among those most affected, acknowledged the federal government's moratorium had come "without proper consultation" and called for "a concerted effort to encourage resource development."
Full transcript: MLAs-elect set out their visions for the NWT
Jackie Jacobson of Nunakput, another district with a clear interest in oil and gas, said the moratorium "is hurting our communities and the whole delta." He added: "We have to work with our federal government to get this moratorium lifted ... to be able to get to our resources."
RJ Simpson, representing Hay River North and a candidate to become the NWT's next premier, said: "While I strongly believe that diversification is important, I don't discount the importance or potential of mining and oil and gas, and we must continue to promote and pursue investment in these areas."