Big oil companies are betting on Christy Clark's re-election as B.C. Premier, kicking in tens of thousands of dollars to support a candidate seen as friendly to the industry's export plans.
A review of Elections BC data shows the Alberta-based oil industry helped bankroll the BC Liberals in 2016, including big contributions from companies backing a major pipeline expansion to Canada's West Coast.
The financial support underlines the high stakes for the energy industry and its political backers next door in Alberta as B.C. heads to the polls on May 9. The sector is determined to boost exports of crude to overseas markets via Kinder Morgan Inc.'s $7.4-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
But B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan has pledged to kill the project if elected, though it's unclear whether and how he could actually block it. Meanwhile, Ms. Clark has distanced herself from the plan, even though the party's biggest donors are companies that either directly support the pipeline or stand to benefit from wider access to energy-thirsty Pacific markets.
That has prompted at least one court challenge alleging a conflict of interest tied to environmental approvals issued by the province. It has also stoked criticism of B.C.'s loosely regulated political-finance rules, which impose no limits on how much individuals, corporations and unions can give.
"B.C. has a system that is essentially legalized bribery," said Duff Conacher of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, which filed the lawsuit earlier this year.
In total, the group pegs contributions to the BC Liberals from shippers on the Kinder Morgan project and related energy companies last year at roughly $82,500. That's on top of $550,000 it says the party collected from the energy industry over the past five years.
The Liberals pulled in a total of $13.1-million last year, more than double the $6.2-million raised by the NDP. About two-thirds of the Liberal total – $7.7-million – came from corporations and other business donors. That compares with $1.8-million for the NDP.
Some of the biggest Liberal donors are companies with large stakes in the oil sands. Among donors are Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. ($12,200); Imperial Oil Ltd. ($23,000); the Canadian affiliate of U.S. oil major Chevron Corp. ($29,880); and Cenovus Energy Inc. ($5,900).
Other donors would benefit from liquefied natural gas exports should they ever materialize. They include Enbridge Inc. ($9,600) and its rival TransCanada Corp. ($16,850) as well as oil and gas driller Encana Corp. ($80,250).
Several companies said their donations cross party lines and are not limited to one province. But in most cases the amounts given to the Liberals dwarf receipts by the NDP, if the party received anything at all.
Chevron, for example, also gave $1,640 to the New Democrats, Elections BC data show. A spokesman said its lobbying activities and donations abide by all applicable provincial legislation.
Imperial also donated $4,000 to the NDP, while Encana gave the party $5,000. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers kicked in $4,550 – less than half the amount it gave to the Liberals. The lobby group attributed the difference partly to the cost and frequency of party-hosted events.
"It's often the case that events held by the political party currently in office are of more immediate interest, but CAPP representatives may attend events for all parties in B.C. and across Canada," the group said in a prepared statement. "The frequency of party-hosted events often correlates with the amount of party funding being received from CAPP or any other organization."
The oil industry has clamoured for a pipeline to the B.C. coast for years, with various proposals stymied by resistance from environmental groups and some First Nations. Last year, the Trudeau government killed one project, Enbridge's Northern Gateway, while clearing the way for Kinder Morgan's larger Trans Mountain proposal.
The latter would nearly triple capacity on the existing westbound route between Edmonton and the Vancouver suburbs to 890,000 barrels per day, enabling landlocked Alberta producers to tap global markets in a bigger way.
Mr. Horgan insists the project poses too great a risk, a sharp contrast with the Alberta NDP government's open advocacy for the plan. The BC Liberals have yet to formally respond to the Democracy Watch petition, which is set to be heard before the B.C. Supreme Court on May 3.