A majority of Albertans surveyed believe that oil and gas represents the most important natural resource in Canada, according to a recently-released Royal Bank of Canada poll.

In every other region in the country, those polled  said freshwater was the most important natural resource although for the most part they still ranked hydrocarbons as highly important.

In the 2016 RBC Canadian Water Attitudes Study, 53 per cent of those polled in Alberta believe oil and gas to be Canada’s most important natural resource. Thirty per cent of Albertans surveyed consider freshwater to be the most important resource  while 12 per cent say it is farmland. Five per cent believe forests are most important.

Alberta aside, all other regions included in the survey consider freshwater to be the nation’s most important resource. However, Robert Sandford, chairman of water and climate security at United Nations University, said it is interesting just how high oil and gas ranks overall in Canada, and how it has changed in the nine years RBC has done its polling, which is probably a product of economic concerns over ecological ones for most people.

“The interesting thing is that between 2013 and 2016 there has been an increase of five percentage points — (from) 15 to 20 per cent of Canadians — who consider oil and natural gas as Canada’s most important natural resource,” he told the Bulletin. The number of Canadians who considered oil and gas as the most important commodity peaked in 2012 at 24 per cent before dropping, he noted, and then climbing back up each year afterwards.

“I am guessing this increase of five percentage points is probably a concern about oil prices and its impact on the economy…. In Canada you have healthcare and unemployment as the top concerns. The three most important concerns facing Canadians in 2016 were the economy, healthcare and unemployment.”

He added: “Poverty is also becoming more important to Canadians than the quality of water. You start adding these all together, and you begin to see a different picture than just focusing on the singular commodity.”

Across all Canadian jurisdictions, 49 per cent of survey respondents ranked freshwater as the country’s most important natural resource (up from 47 per cent in 2013), ahead of oil and gas (20 per cent), agricultural land (15 per cent), forests (12 per cent), as well as base metals and fisheries (each at one per cent).

In British Columbia, 46 per cent of those surveyed rank freshwater as most important to Canada, while 20 per cent say it is forests, 18 per cent say it is oil and gas, and 13 per cent believe it is farmland. In the ‘Prairies’ region, 52 per cent of respondents say freshwater is most important to Canada, 21 per cent feel it is farmland, 15 per cent believe it is oil and gas, while nine per cent say it is forests.

Ontario respondents believe freshwater is Canada’s most important natural resource (50 per cent), oil and gas ranks second (18 per cent), farmland comes in third (17 per cent) and forests is fourth (10 per cent). In Québec, 58 per cent of respondents rank freshwater as most important, 16 per cent say it is forests, 11 per cent say it is oil and gas, while 10 per cent believe it to be farmland.

In the Atlantic region, about 47 per cent say freshwater is the country’s most important natural resource, while 16 per cent say it is oil and gas, and 14 per cent believe it is forests, as do 14 per cent say it is farmland. Eight per cent of those surveyed from the Atlantic region rank fisheries as most important.

However, while freshwater ranks as the most important natural resource in the GlobeScan-conducted survey, Sandford said a large number also do not even know the origins of their tap water. He said water attitude surveys are useful tools in understanding where the need for public education is greatest. In regards to the relationship between water supply and other resources, such as oil and gas, Sandford believes Canadians largely lack understanding.

“I don’t think we are at the point here in Canada where we understand the nexus between water availability for security and energy supply,” he told the DOB. “I think we are still thinking about those resources individually, rather than their interaction with one another.”

On the global stage, more and more regions in the world experience and understand the interaction between water, food supply and energy reliability, Sandford said. While Canada has in many cases been shielded from the global water crisis, though, the country’s resource extraction strategies are in part slowly awakening Canadians to the realities of how freshwater and other resources, notably oil and gas, are intimately linked.

“I think it is going to be a while before that [understanding] happens [in Canada], but I think it is probably going to come. That is why I think these surveys are interesting, because if you do them long enough then you can actually crack some of those trends.”

Survey says that 21 per cent of Canadians believe climate change to be the top threat to the nation’s freshwater supply, which is up from seven per cent in 2010. Further, 92 per cent of those polled think stricter rules and standards to manage water use by industry and municipalities is the best way for Canada to best protect and manage freshwater.

Ninety per cent of those surveyed believe water management decisions should be better informed by science and that commercial enterprises should pay for the full costs of delivering and treating all of the water that they use, as well as ensuring that enterprises obtain licenses for groundwater use. Three per cent of Canadians polled believe oilsands development represents the biggest threat to the nation’s freshwater supply.

While in some areas of the country the concern about oilsands development and its impact on freshwater might be intense, Sandford said, for the most part the survey shows Canadians simply are not concerned about the impact of that industry on water, which might be in part a result of larger fiscal worries plaguing the country.

“I think that one thing that is really affecting things now is the economic downturn, and people seem to be more concerned about that then they are anything else. That might be masking some of that concern.”