FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's Conservative government is promising to develop new oil and gas regulations and reduce the number of legislative members in a throne speech that offers a glimpse on how it intends to proceed in the fall legislative session.

As people demonstrated outside the legislature Wednesday against shale gas development, inside the government said it would create an environmental protection plan to ensure such development would not harm human health and drinking water supplies.

The speech, read by Lt.-Gov. Graydon Nicholas, said regulations would be brought in "incrementally."

"This regulatory structure will also ensure the economic benefits of oil and gas exploration and development are maximized for all New Brunswickers," Nicholas said.

The promise came as hundreds chanted "No shale gas," beat drums and waved placards to oppose any development of the shale gas industry in the province.

Many of the protesters had camped on the lawn of the legislature for five days in a teepee to bring attention to their cause. On Wednesday, they erected a mock oil well, but dismantled it later in the day.

Opponents are specifically concerned about hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The process involves forcing a cocktail of chemicals, water and sand into a gas well to fracture layers of shale rock and release trapped pockets of natural gas.

Opposition Liberal Leader Victor Boudreau said the government appears to be forging ahead with shale gas without listening to the public.

"There doesn't seem to be a willingness to consult New Brunswickers on this issue," Boudreau said. "The people outside want to be engaged, they want to be consulted."

But the shale gas industry could prove to be a lucrative appeal for a government strapped for cash as it tries to fix its finances. The province is running a projected deficit of almost $546 million this year, with a net debt expected to top $10 billion.

The government also announced it will launch an electoral district review to reduce the number of members in the legislature. But Premier David Alward would not say how many would be cut from the 55 seats now there.

"If we look at the rest of the country, after Prince Edward Island we are the most represented province in Canada," Alward told a news conference before the throne speech was delivered.

"But again, MLAs do vital work on behalf of the people of New Brunswick and I understand the importance and balance to be found with that."

Boudreau said the Liberals would be interested in looking at cutting the number of politicians. But he added they would rather see the government concentrate on more important issues such as poverty reduction, job creation and growing the economy.

The idea comes as Nova Scotia examines the possibility of doing the same. An all-party committee is to report to that province's legislature by Dec. 31 and the government has said an electoral boundaries commission would be struck early in the new year.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has called for cutting the number of ridings in Nova Scotia from 52 to 33, but Premier Darrell Dexter said a cut that large would harm rural parts of the province.

The New Brunswick government is also promising legislation this session to enable residents to vote on provincial nominees for the Senate. Alward first announced his intention to support an elected Senate last month.

A report on the future of NB Liquor is also expected this fall and a capital budget will be tabled in early December.

The legislature is expected to sit until mid-December and then return in late March with the provincial budget.