The carbon tax and natural gas extraction were hot issues in a debate on the environment among the five B.C. New Democrats vying to lead the party.

Mike Farnworth, Adrian Dix, John Horgan, Dana Larsen and Nicholas Simons told an audience of about 200 people on Saturday that the NDP has placed the environment on the agenda while the governing Liberals ignored the topic altogether during their recent leadership race.

The candidates answered a total of three questions provided to moderators by ForestEthics and the David Suzuki Foundation, the Dogwood Initiative and the NDP's Standing Committee on the Environment and Economy.

Farnworth, considered a front-runner, said the New Democrats mishandled the carbon tax issue imposed by the Liberals. He said the party made a mistake in not fighting the government's plan.

"We as a party got it wrong on climate change and the carbon tax," he said to applause. "We were out of touch with the majority of British Columbians, and I think that's one of the key reasons why we lost the election.

"We must make sure we don't make that mistake again. That means ensuring we have climate change policies that start to put (B.C.) in the forefront. It means extending the carbon tax to major industrial polluters."

He said he would use the carbon tax to pay for improved public transportation.

As part of its green strategy, British Columbia introduced an escalating carbon tax in July 2008, increasing the cost of gasoline and home heating costs. The tax will increase to about eight cents a litre on the price of fossil fuels by next year.

Dix said that when it comes to extracting natural gas trapped underground, he's opposed to the use of hydraulic fracturing, or so-called fracking, because it uses massive amounts of water resources and remains controversial.

While B.C.'s Liberal government is a proponent of fracking, saying gas extraction companies have been using the technology for years, Quebec recently stopped using it and opponents in northern Nova Scotia say they're concerned about a call for proposals on three potential drilling areas.

"We need to review it, other jurisdictions are," Dix said. "We're talking about a massive use of water resources in a process no one knows how it will end up."

Dix was the most vocal candidate in slamming Premier Christy Clark, saying she's more aligned with big business than Prime Minister Stephen Harper because she wants to overturn the federal environmental-appeal process to allow for the development of the Prosperity Mine near Williams Lake.

He said the New Democrats must reach out to the 1.4 million registered British Columbians who didn't vote in the last election and are mostly young and unemployed.

John Horgan, who spent five years as the NDP's energy critic, said he doesn't know how much water is being used because the Liberal government has reduced the number of experts it hires to provide scientific information on natural resources.

"There are dozens and dozens and hundreds of people across British Columbia that have good idea on how we can protect our water. They're not getting access to our decision makers."

Larsen, a pot activist, called for hemp to be used as a form of renewable energy for fuel and food, saying it should be grown across Canada.

Simons, a cellist and former social worker, said he's been told he's too nice to become leader of a political party but that he sees himself as a conductor of an orchestra that's strong and unified.

All the candidates were against BC Hydro's power purchase agreements with independent power producers, saying conservation is the key to reducing electricity use.

They were also opposed to the Site C Dam hydroelectric project in the Peace River Valley.

The New Democrats pick a new leader April 17.