Premier Bob McLeod used a year-end interview with Cabin Radio to declare the Northwest Territories “can’t have it both ways” when weighing economic needs against environmental concerns.

However, in a 40-minute live broadcast, the Premier said his government was nonetheless trying to find some ways of reconciling its reliance on resource development with the battle to minimize climate change and its impact.

“We’re going to want to make sure we still have jobs when all is said and done,” said McLeod, who expects the remainder of his second term as leader to be “a difficult two more years.”

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McLeod laid responsibility for much of the territory’s economic trouble on external factors such as the slow recovery of commodities markets and federal government policy.

Exploring options

The plight of Sahtu community Norman Wells painted the territory’s dilemma in stark relief during McLeod’s year-end interview.

At the outset, the Premier referenced Imperial Oil’s suspension of operations in Norman Wells by noting that “we haven’t produced one molecule of oil and gas for over a year.” Referring to the territory as a whole, he added: “We’re not just going to throw up our hands and say, ‘Well, we’re going to leave trillions of dollars of oil and gas in the ground.’ We’re going to make sure that all the options are explored.”

However, McLeod went on to use Norman Wells as an example of what he termed the NWT’s ‘tremendous’ environmental record.

“We’ve already exceeded the goals that were set in Paris within our government,” said McLeod.

“We’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by over 30 percent since 2005. We haven’t quite reached it in the private sector, but with the closure of Norman Wells for a year, we’re getting pretty close.”

Asked to comment on Norman Wells’ status as both an environmental win and economic drawback, McLeod said: “That just goes to show you that you can’t have it both ways.”

‘If that was all it took, we would do it’

While the Premier generally avoided openly prioritizing between those two policy areas, he made clear his desire for more resource development – particularly oil and gas – to open up in the remainder of his second term, and criticized the federal government’s year-old moratorium on Arctic drilling.

“The oil companies are telling us that federal government officials are going around and asking oil and gas companies, ‘What would it take for you to give up all your oil and gas leases and licences in the North?’ In the Beaufort, at least,” he said.

“That causes us some concern. If we have an indefinite moratorium to be reviewed every five years, and at the same time you’re asking them what it will take to give up their leases and licences, it looks like they’re trying to work to a longer term than indefinite.”

McLeod also dismissed the suggestion of a large-scale territorial spending rethink, aimed at refocusing money on renewable resources rather than resource extraction. The Premier said moving the territory’s many small communities away from diesel fuel would require decades of work and more than just cash.

“We had to buy a barging company so that we could resupply communities,” he said, referring to his government’s acquisition of struggling barge operator NTCL this time last year for a reported $7.5 million.

“It’s not as if we could spend every cent we have to get people off fossil fuels. If that was all it took, we would do it. I don’t think there’s anybody who believes we can go to these communities, spend a bunch of money, and we would be off fossil fuels.”

Site C criticism

In recent months, the Premier’s office has opened a new chapter in federal-territorial relations by increasingly turning to public statements of discontent – the latest coming this week, as the NWT called for Canada to honour its commitment to devolution and begin negotiations over shared management of oil and gas resources.

McLeod told Cabin Radio these were getting results, noting media coverage of a separate “red alert” issued by his office in November over the NWT’s future. McLeod says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has since written to affirm his commitment to developing an Arctic policy framework – a document that McLeod hopes will enshrine the territory’s right to attract oil and gas investment without federal interference.

In other areas, McLeod said a new all-weather road into the Slave Geological Province north-east of Yellowknife could begin construction by the end of 2019, or at the very least the territory expects to know by then whether it has federal funding for the project.

McLeod said hospital construction in Yellowknife was “on time and on budget”, expressed a desire to see the territory establish a knowledge economy featuring a “University of the North”, and criticized the British Columbia government for going ahead with its Site C dam too soon.

McLeod, who recalls his home community of Fort Providence experiencing significant negative impacts from another dam, felt BC had done too little to consult with NWT residents who may feel the dam’s downstream effects.