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The anti-shale gas petition, with 15,840 signatures, was tabled in the legislature on Tuesday ((CBC))

A petition with nearly 16,000 signatures calling for the New Brunswick government to abandon plans for shale gas exploration and development was tabled in the legislature Tuesday.

The Conservation Council, which collected the signatures, wants the province to instead focus on creating jobs that reduce energy consumption and focus on renewable energy instead of fossil fuel.

The petition, which was tabled by Kirk MacDonald, the Progressive Conservative MLA for York North, is the largest campaign the environmental group has conducted in more than 40 years of environmental lobbying, said freshwater protection co-ordinator Stephanie Merrill. MacDonald affixed his name to the petition, which is required for a MLA to table a petition in the legislature.

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"We had many concerned citizens and community groups from all across the province who were out with the petitions canvassing their communities, their family, their friends and their neighbours. So we have petition signatures from all corners of the province and almost every community in between."

The petition states: "The Government of New Brunswick is expediting the exploration and production of shale gas on 1.5M hectares of land, private and public, throughout our province without a formal public inquiry. The history of shale gas development elsewhere has seen devastating impacts on drinking water, surface waters, air quality, landscape integrity and human health. Evidence from across North America, from jurisdictions with stronger regulatory frameworks and enforcement capacity than NB, has shown that accidents and detrimental impacts cannot be avoided."

Other Liberal MLAs also tabled petitions against shale gas exploration.

Opposition repeats call for moratorium

Opposition Leader Victor Boudreau challenged the Alward government to impose a moratorium on shale gas exploration and to create a special committee of the legislature to tour the province and consult with New Brunswickers on the contentious issue.

Boudreau also questioned whether the government is "prepared to admit it has mishandled the file for the past 14 months."

Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup replied that there's a strategic steering committee already in place.

He said he understands "there are concerns," and said he has the "utmost respect" for MacDonald, who presented the petition.

"He's looking out after his people. Those people have questions. We'll make sure we'll answer those questions," he said.

But Northrup stressed the government has no plans for a moratorium and suggested the opposition might want to stop asking questions about it.

Boudreau countered that he will continue to ask questions because he has seen the hundreds and thousands of protesters and the hundreds and thousands of emails from concerned citizens.

"Our job is to raise the concerns of the average New Brunswickers who don't have the opportunity to be here," he said.

Boudreau challenged the premier that if he wants to keep his word and consult with citizens on issues of importance, then he should strike a special committee.

Northrup said the government introduced tougher regulations on the hydro-fracking industry in June and will have more regulations "if there is a business there. We're looking at three to five years down the road," he said.

"We're doing our homework on this and we're going to do it right."

The Alward government has promised to bring in a new Environmental Protection Plan this spring that will cover hydro-fracking along with other activities.

Premier David Alward has said he would like to see the industry explore the possible opportunities in New Brunswick. He has also said that economic benefits from the industry could help fund important social programs.