VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Politicians on Canada's Pacific Coast hit the campaign trail on Tuesday for the start of a provincial election that could decide the fate of North America's first comprehensive carbon tax.
British Columbia is the first province to hold an election since Canada slid into recession, although polls indicate the governing Liberal Party is headed for another victory over the New Democratic Party when voters cast their ballots on May 12.
NDP leader Carole James called on voters to punish Premier Gordon Campbell's Liberals for mishandling the economic downturn, which has pushed unemployment in the province's largely resource-based economy to 7.4 percent.
"British Columbia has had the worst job losses in the country. We need a change," James told a rally near Vancouver.
The Liberals, who have governed the province since 2001, say the New Democrats mismanaged British Columbia's finances when the economy was doing well in the 1990s and cannot be trusted to handle it now when times are tough.
"British Columbians know this election is critical to their future and that the progress we have made could all be lost in a heartbeat if they make the wrong choice on May 12," Campbell said in a written statement.
A survey released by research firm Mustel Group showed the right-of-center Liberals with 52 percent support among decided voters, compared with 35 percent for the left-leaning NDP and 12 percent for the Green Party.
The campaign has created an unusual dilemma for the province's environmental activists. They have traditionally sided with the New Democrats but now object to the NDP's plans to scrap the carbon tax launched by the Liberals last year.
The tax applies to nearly all fossil fuels, including gasoline and home heating fuel, starting at C$10 per tonne of carbon emissions in 2008 and increasing by C$5 a tonne annually for four years.
The tax became a lightning rod for criticism when it was launched in July, when energy prices were already at record highs and drivers began paying an additional 2.41 Canadian cents on a liter of gasoline (about 9.13 cents per U.S. gallon).
The NDP's "Axe the Tax" campaign coincided with a rise in the polls that briefly had them neck and neck with the Liberals in November, garnering particular support in rural areas of the province.
The NDP plans to replace the carbon tax with other caps on emissions aimed at industrial sources, but environmental groups complain that will do little to reduce greenhouse gasses and could end up costing jobs.
British Columbia is already part of the Western Climate Initiative, a coalition of U.S. states and Canadian provinces that have agreed to adopt a cap and trade system for carbon emissions starting in 2012.
Candidates from both main parties will also have to compete for voters attention with a high-profile, non-political distraction: the Vancouver Canucks begin their National Hockey League playoffs this week in a quest for the Stanley Cup.
Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson