Combined spending on mineral exploration and deposit appraisal may have increased by 32 per cent in the Northwest Territories last year, according to estimates released by Natural Resources Canada.
But when considered alone, spending on mineral exploration — which is the type of work that leads to the discovery of new deposits — trailed the amounts seen in Yukon and Nunavut.
Last year, companies spent $31.5 million trying to find new deposits in N.W.T. That's 22 per cent more than what companies spent in 2013.
But it's also much lower than what companies spent in the territory in the years leading to the global recession, and it also trails 2014 mineral exploration spending of $59.4 million and $86.9 million in the Yukon and Nunavut, respectively.
Worse, according to the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, is that the muted exploration scene lessens the chances of new mines opening in N.W.T.
"When you go to a bingo game, you don't play one card to win. You play 15, 16 different cards, just to increase the odds," says Tom Hoefer, the chamber's executive director.
"It's very difficult to find a mine, so we need to have lots of exploration projects on the go and, frankly, we just don't have enough."
Already found deposits
A greater proportion of money is instead going to deposit appraisal, which refers to a variety of activities — not all of them exploration-based — that a company undertakes to bring an already discovered deposit to the feasibility stage.
Last year, more than two thirds of companies' money went to deposit appraisal work in N.W.T. By comparison, in Yukon and Nunavut, more than half of companies' money went towards exploring for new deposits.
Previous years have seen Natural Resources Canada report mineral exploration and deposit appraisal spending together, as one figure. But Gary Vivian, a Yellowknife-based geologist, says that only masked the fact that spending on mineral exploration in N.W.T. was weak compared to earlier years.
"The concern, from everybody's standpoint that actually does work in N.W.T., is that exploration is actually declining and has been since 2008," says Vivian.
"We know. I can actually sit down with you and actually suggest that there was really only three companies last year that may have done a serious exploration program here in N.W.T."
Though they experienced higher mineral exploration spending than N.W.T. last year, Yukon and Nunavut nevertheless saw year-over-year spending declines of 18 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively.