03/19/2014 01:54 EDT | Updated 05/18/2014 05:59 EDT

Enbridge Covers Northern B.C. With Ads Before Kitimat Northern Gateway Vote

Enbridge Northern Gateway is covering northern B.C. with ads in the run up to the Kitimat plebiscite, urging citizens to vote in favour of the company's proposal to ship oil across B.C. and on to Asia on oil tankers.

During a provincial election or initiative vote, Elections BC restricts how much companies and other third-party advertisers can spend -- but no such rules apply to the Kitimat plebiscite, being held on April 12.

Full-page colour ads have appeared in community newspapers in Kitimat, Prince Rupert, Terrace, Smithers, Burns Lake and Fort St. James -- a town nearly 600 kilometres away from Kitimat. The estimated cost of those ads is about $8,250.

Enbridge has also launched a website, "Vote Yes for Kitimat," urging citizens to vote in favour of their project. A conservative price tag on the website would be about $2,000, bringing Enbridge's ad spend so far to more than $10,000 -- with four weeks left until the vote.

During a B.C. election, third-party advertising is capped at $3,137.93 per electoral district. During a province-wide initiative vote, third-party advertising is limited to $5,000 per advertiser. The rules apply to all forms of advertising, including media advertising, brochures, signs and websites.

Enbridge's ad spend on the Kitimat plebiscite so far is more than three times what the company would be allowed to spend in an electoral district during a provincial election. As of 2011, there were about 4,300 eligible voters in the District of Kitimat.

Limits on advertising during voting periods are important to level the playing field, says Dermod Travis of Integrity BC, a non-profit group that advocates for electoral finance reform.

"Corporations can't vote -- they shouldn't be given the opportunity to influence referendums and elections," Travis told DeSmog Canada.

On a provincial level, B.C. is the wild west of electoral finance, Travis says, but it's even worse on the municipal level, governed by the Local Government Act.

"Northern Gateway is free, frankly, to spend as much as they want before, during and after the plebiscite," Travis says. "They have very deep pockets and are in a far better position to finance a campaign than any grassroots group in Kitimat."

Despite the fact the Local Government Act doesn't contain any limits for advertising during elections or plebiscites, Dermod says the District of Kitimat could have put in place rules on a "boy scout's pledge."

Warren Waycheshen, deputy chief administrative officer for the District of Kitimat, told DeSmog Canada that staff did consider the advertising issue. However, they didn't see any way to enforce a spending limit.

"We didn't really have any mechanism to limit spending," he said. "There's no teeth in the Local Government Act."

The district has banned signs within 100 metres of voting locations on voting days and has taken measures to prevent temporary workers from voting by requiring a valid piece of identification with a Kitimat address, not just a utility statement. There will also be scrutineers present to observe the counting of ballots.

Douglas Channel Watch, a grassroots Kitimat group that has raised issues with Enbridge's proposal, took its concerns about Enbridge's advertising to the District of Kitimat council Monday night. They've also announced a door-to-door campaign to get out the vote.

"Rather than throwing millions of dollars into an ad campaign telling people what to think like Enbridge does, we started knocking on doors and asked the people of Kitimat what was most important to them," said Murray Minchin, a member of Douglas Channel Watch.

The Enbridge newspaper ads feature a woman sitting with a coffee cup at her kitchen table, with the caption: "I want my grandchildren to work here."

If the pipeline and oil tanker terminal were built, it would provide about 165 permanent jobs in Kitimat. The new Rio Tinto Alcan smelter is expected to provide 1,000 permanent jobs.

Meanwhile, Kitimat LNG, LNG Canada and Douglas Channel Energy Project all have proposed new projects in Kitimat.

The influx of well-paid workers has jacked up rents in Kitimat, and many locals can't find accommodations, creating a situation Kitimat's Mayor Joanne Monaghan called "desperate" in a recent article in the Globe and Mail about Rio Tinto Alcan bringing in a cruise ship to house temporary workers.

Earlier this year, the District of Kitimat council decided to survey the residents of Kitimat on their opinions on Enbridge's oil proposal in a non-binding plebiscite vote.

The wording of the ballot question is: Do you support the final report recommendations of the Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and National Energy Board, that the Enbridge Northern Gateway project be approved, subject to 209 conditions set out in Volume 2 of the JRP's final report?

Advance voting dates are April 2 and April 9, with general voting on April 12.

Enbridge was asked for details of its plebiscite advertising campaign, but did not respond in time for publication.

- Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada