Candidates representing Nova Scotia's Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties were cautious Tuesday at a debate on environmental issues facing the province.

Speaking at the University of King's College, Iain Rankin of the Liberals and Rob Batherson for the Tories declined to provide hard targets for future greenhouse gas reductions and acceptable levels of clear cutting in Nova Scotia forests.

"We do believe the emissions reductions should be in legislation, but there's more work to do for full consultations to determine what that standard should be," said Rankin, who is seeking re-election in Timberlea Prospect.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Nova Scotia has already cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent and is on track for a 40 per cent reduction by 2020. The targets were set by the NDP when they were in office.

Rob Batherson

Rob Batherson is the PC candidate for Halifax Citadel-Sable Island. (CBC)

Tory Rob Batherson — running in Halifax Citadel-Sable Island — said further reductions should be rolled into the province's Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act.

"In terms of new hard caps, the PC Party believes the best place to address that is through a new review of 10-year-old legislation so we can strengthen it and set more aggressive goals beyond the 2030 period," he said.

Coal goals

Green Party deputy leader Jessica Alexander called for the end of coal-fired electricity generation. Burning coal currently provides more than half of the province's electricity.

Jessica Alexander Green Deputy Leader

Jessica Alexander is the Green Party deputy leader and is running in Hammonds Plains-Lucasville. (CBC)

New Democrat Lisa Roberts, seeking re-election for Halifax Needham, said an NDP government would legislate new emission levels within one year of coming to power.

Forestry practices

Roberts and Alexander promised to limit clear cutting to 50 per cent of all forest harvesting. The target was part of a natural resources strategy abandoned by the Liberals after they came to power.

Rankin said there was no consensus on the issue. He said Liberals have increased transparency by posting all harvest applications on Crown land.

"We are committed to hiring an independent person to come in. They will actually review all the forestry practices, including this report," Rankin said. "And until this report is complete and Nova Scotians are satisfied with the results there will be no long-term leases on Crown land."

Lisa Roberts

Lisa Roberts is the NDP candidate seeking re-election in Halifax Needham. (CBC)

But Roberts said there will be no consensus because "change is difficult."

Alexander, a Green candidate for Hammonds Plains-Lucasville, said her party wonders "why 50 per cent of all harvesting of forestry by clear cutting would be even allowable in the first place since we know the dangers of clear cutting."

Her remarks drew a round of applause from the crowd.

Batherson said the PCs are committed to a review of "what is an acceptable level of cutting on Crown land."

Candidates prepared for debate

Candidates were given the questions in advance and the debate was polite.

Rankin was repeatedly needled for his government's decision to build a new health centre in the Bayers Lake Business Park, where public transit access is extremely limited.

Iain Rankin

Liberal candidate Iain Rankin is seeking re-election for Timberlea Prospect. (CBC)

"That is ... idiotic," said Roberts.

None of the candidates would commit to removing the environmental assessment exemption for quarries of less than 3.9 hectares.

Alton natural gas storage project

Michelle Paul of the Sipekne'katik Band asked the candidates whether the Mi'kmaq were adequately consulted on the Alton natural gas storage project, where underground salt caverns will be flooded with water and the brine filtered into the Shubenacadie River.

The band has led opposition to the project — even though the Assembly of Mi'kmaq Chiefs has endorsed it, saying improved protections were obtained after extensive consultations. Sipekne'katik is not a member of the assembly.

In January, a court said the band did not receive the reports and documents it needed to mount a proper appeal of the ministerial approval.

The NDP and Greens suggested an environmental bill of rights would give the Sipekne'tkatik band the right to stop the project.

Rankin defended the approval.

"We did have extensive consultation over a number years, which included federal scientists involved in this process. The minister added new levels of terms and conditions, which are in the approval and are binding."