01/30/2014 07:41 EST | Updated 04/01/2014 05:59 EDT

New Brunswick premier vows to press ahead with shale gas despite protests

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick Premier David Alward used his final state of the province address before the next election to urge the public to support the development of a shale gas industry.

Alward said his Progressive Conservative government will push ahead to help create a shale gas sector, adding that the cost of not moving forward is too great.

"To not take advantage of this opportunity would be one of the most irresponsible things a government could do," Alward told a business audience Thursday evening in Fredericton in a prepared speech.

"This is New Brunswick's time."

His position is a gamble as an election draws near, flying in the face of strong public opposition to shale gas development. In October, a protest near Rexton turned violent when police enforced a court-ordered injunction to halt the blockade of a compound used by SWN Resources to store equipment. Officers arrested 40 people and six police vehicles were burned.

But in his speech, Alward said RCMP officers acted with "incredible professionalism" during that protest.

"We will not let the personal agendas of the minority be a roadblock to developing our province's bright future," Alward said, adding that both SWN Resources and Corridor Resources have plans to exploratory drill wells this year.

He also extolled the benefits of the proposed Energy East pipeline to move western crude to New Brunswick and said the province is looking at offshore resources as a possible revenue stream through the development of a Canada-New Brunswick Offshore Accord in the works with Ottawa.

A new provincial forestry plan to increase the amount of wood fibre being processed will be released in the coming days, resulting in mill upgrades, he added.

His speech comes just before the opening Tuesday of the spring session of the legislature and the release of both the capital and operating budgets for 2014-15.

In its last fiscal update in December, the provincial government said expenditures were forecast to drop by $113 million. But that did not make up for the anticipated revenue shortfall of $172.9 million, pushing the projected deficit for this fiscal year to $538.2 million.

Alward also announced a new funding program for school projects, called Brilliant Labs, to encourage students to take an interest in computer coding, robotics and arts.

Last week, Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant said his party would create a similar fund.

After Alward's speech, Gallant said he can work with the government on that issue and in general on the growth of natural resources, but can't agree with the way the government is proceeding.

He maintains there should be a moratorium on shale gas exploration until reports on the industry from Environment Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are complete.

"I think that as a province we can agree that this is a contentious issue," he said. "So I think we should be able to agree to wait for these reports that will give us a lot of information on this important subject."

Gallant said the forestry industry has been calling for a long-term plan for years, but the Alward government has waited until just months before the election in the hopes it will give them a boost at the polls.

The election is scheduled for Sept. 22, 2014.