11/05/2013 10:22 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

New Brunswick to proceed with shale gas industry, premier vows in throne speech

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government is promising to forge ahead with shale gas development as it enters the final year of its mandate, shrugging off fierce opposition from critics who are accusing it of ignoring their concerns.

Premier David Alward placed an emphasis on resources development in what is expected to be his final throne speech before an election set for September 2014.

Alward said while the industry is only in the exploration phase, there will be extensive public consultation if energy companies decide develop the province's shale gas.

"That work continues to take place, which is very important, but it does send a message that we have full intention to develop that resource" Alward told a news conference prior to the speech Thursday.

He said discussions with First Nations groups, some of whom have protested the province's position on the issue, have been difficult. But he said he is committed to continue talks.

"I've met many times with all the chiefs and then with individual chiefs and councils as well," he said. "And for whatever reason, what I believe is a path forward has changed in the past."

The throne speech came as a few hundred people protested outside the legislature, calling on the government to stop issuing exploratory licences for shale gas.

Julia Linke of the Council of Canadians said Alward isn't listening to the public.

"It is certainly not fit for a premier to be ridiculing the people and to be dismissing them," Linke said. "Democracy is at stake here."

Margaret Tusz-King, a municipal councillor in Sackville, N.B., said she doubts provincial regulations are strong enough to alleviate environmental concerns associated with shale gas development, particularly around water supplies.

"I feel that they are making risky decisions about things that we need to protect for our children and our grandchildren, particularly the water and the safety of the land," she said.

"I'm also concerned that they are not honouring the treaty and aboriginal rights."

A large anti-shale gas protest near Rexton, N.B., turned violent last month when the RCMP enforced an injunction preventing protesters from blocking a property used by energy company SWN Resources, which has conducted exploration activities in the province. Forty people were arrested and six police vehicles were burned.

Many of the protesters were from the Elsipogtog First Nation. Alward has held a number of meetings with Elsipogtog Chief Aaron Sock, but said he saw no point to meet with the chief of the St. Mary's First Nation, who has set up a traditional longhouse across the street from the legislature in protest of shale gas development, because he doesn't see what would be achieved from such a meeting.

The throne speech, read by Lt.-Gov. Graydon Nicholas, also said the government will work with all communities, including First Nations, to ensure New Brunswick derives maximum benefits from the proposed the Energy East Pipeline project, which would ship oil from Alberta to Saint John, N.B., if approved.

"The pipeline is a once in a generation opportunity that will help retain and return our workers at home," the speech said.

Alward also promised in the speech to publicly report the salaries of doctors as well as proceed with public pension changes, despite outcry from some unions and retirees.

The public pension plan, which covers about 32,000 people, has a $1-billion deficit and is only about 50 per cent solvent. The government wants to adopt a shared-risk model for pensions which would only see increases when the pension plan makes money.

Green party Leader David Coon said he believes the Progressive Conservatives will lose the election if they don't budge from positions that are drawing public criticism.

"The road is heading out of this legislature permanently for them with them sticking to shale gas and changing the pensions of retirees," Coon said.

The government is also committing to a catastrophic drug program by the summer. It had promised such a program during its first year in power, but Alward said it has taken time to get the plan in place.