Premier David Alward is attempting to align himself with U.S. President Barack Obama on the economic importance of shale gas in the future.

Alward’s government has faced mounting criticism in the last year over shale gas exploration and the use of the controversial hydraulic fracturing process.

Alward and Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup have consistently said that the potential resource revenue could pay for public services. The premier has also said he wants to impose the continent’s toughest shale gas regulations on companies working in the province.

Alward used his annual State of the Province speech on Thursday night to outline his views that the shale gas industry could turn into an economic benefit for a province that is facing a massive debt and high unemployment.

"This week, in his State of the Union address, President Obama outlined his vision of shale gas as a massive job creator and a long-term source of cleaner energy," Alward said.

Opponents of the shale gas industry have raised concerns about water contamination and the industrialization of rural areas. They have also specifically criticized the process of hydro-fracking.

Hydro-fracking is a process where exploration companies inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground, creating cracks in shale rock formations. That process allows companies to extract natural gas from areas that would otherwise go untapped.

Alward did repeat his promise that those economic benefits would not come at the expense of the environment.

"New Brunswickers can be assured an expanding natural gas industry could only produce jobs and economic growth if it can be done responsibly," he said.

Alward said his government will ensure there are strong regulations in place for any oil and gas exploration in the province.

The premier has committed to introducing an environmental protection plan this year that would cover industrial developments, including hydro-fracking.

The provincial government has committed to tightening up regulations governing oil and gas companies after Windsor Energy admitted to conducting seismic testing within Sussex’s borders in October before it had received support from the local council.

The provincial government investigated the incident and Northrup forwarded a complaint to the RCMP in November.

However, the police opted not to lay charges because nothing in the existing regulations allowed a company to be punished or penalized. Northrup said in December that he would also close that loophole.

The protests against shale gas exploration were held across the province throughout 2011.

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick collected nearly 16,000 signatures on a petition that called on the provincial government to abandon its plans for shale gas exploration.