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An Encana site in the Horn River basin near Fort Nelson, B.C. Natural gas is promoted as a clean-burning fuel – but getting it out of the ground remains a potentially messy process.David Ebner/The Globe and Mail

Billions of litres of water a year. Thousands of expensive wells. New roads. Many hectares of trees felled and land cleared. Camps to house thousands of workers.

At the same time, the West Coast export of Canadian natural gas carries the promise of so many billions in new revenues that its government has taken to comparing it with Alberta's oil sands. Some of the final regulatory obstacles to large-scale gas exports have been settled, and recently a small project called BC LNG said it had signed gas sales agreements that could allow it to start construction soon.

But the province has spent less time discussing the scale of industrialization that will be required, for many decades, to enable those exports of gas from B.C.'s northeast to ship to Asian customers. Natural gas is promoted as a clean-burning fuel – but getting it out of the ground remains a potentially messy process. The spectre of large tracts of boreal forest carved up by intensive gas drilling has already prompted one local first nation to prepare to do legal battle against new gas pipelines.

It's an early warning that, like oil, natural gas exports stand to prompt a showdown over the environment.

"We are not going to let them get away with it," said Lana Lowe, director of land and resources for the Fort Nelson First Nation, whose traditional territory encompasses much of the Horn River shale gas play, which is likely to serve as a major source of gas for export. She added: "The major concern is what happens in five years when it's all systems go and we have 10 oil companies drilling our land and taking all our water."

It comes down to the size of development that is being proposed.

Estimates vary, but hundreds – and perhaps more than a thousand – wells will need to be drilled each year to support three mid-sized liquefied natural gas terminals, a number that seems a reasonable possibility given current global corporate interest. Three terminals – Kitimat LNG, LNG Canada and one in Prince Rupert, where both BG Group PLC and Petronas have projects – could handle roughly 4.5 billion cubic feet a day in gas.

Using current technology, the hydraulic fracturing extraction method required for each well sucks down roughly 20 million litres of water. At 450 wells a year, that's roughly nine billion litres a year, enough to supply water to residents of a city the size of Calgary, with 1.1 million people, for more than a month. Companies such as Encana Corp., Nexen Inc., Apache Corp. and Devon Energy Corp. have already applied to the B.C. government for water licences totalling 11.1 billion litres a year – although the province says the largest of those, an Encana application for three billion litres, represents 0.024 per cent of annual runoff from the Fort Nelson River.

Still, B.C. needs to prepare before those volumes of water are pumped below ground, said Eric Swanson, a director with the Dogwood Initiative, a B.C. environmental group.

"Before any government gets too excited about [LNG development], they've got to sit down with the first nations and figure out what the pace and scale they'd like looks like and see how much water we actually have," he said.

The energy industry has in recent years taken numerous steps to reduce its environmental footprint, with shared roads, water pipelines to reduce truck traffic and multiwell "pads" that substantially diminish the amount of land needed. Between roads, camps and other facilities, gas development is unlikely to occupy more than 5 per cent of a given area, companies say.

In times past, industry might "carpet bomb" an area with wells, said Mike Wood, vice-president of Canadian development for Talisman Energy Inc. But "we don't do that any more." As many as 24 wells can now be drilled from a single cleared location. People in the gas-rich areas of northeastern B.C., he said, would probably "never see this stuff – it's in a very remote area."

There is little doubt that large-scale gas drilling would bring change. It already has in places where it has begun. At Talisman's Farrell Creek play, for example, worker camps have already rivalled the population of the nearby town of Hudson's Hope, B.C. To supply the water it needs, Talisman built twin 18-inch pipelines that travel 45 kilometres to the Williston Reservoir. The pipelines were intended to replace the 400 to 700 trucks hauling water for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations.

Peter Doig, a former financial analyst, recalls visiting the area in late 2011, when the pipelines were being built. "The industrial activity was incredible," he said. "And that was a small taste of what you're going to see as far as building roads, building pipeline access – and the amount of earth-moving equipment you're going to have up there. You're going to be tearing down huge tracts of forest."

Ms. Lowe, the lands director, intends to fight what's coming, saying it stands to negatively affect a region that is home to moose, grizzly bears and caribou.

"It's really quite beautiful. The Serengeti of the North, they call it," she said. LNG exports are, she added, "a disaster waiting to happen."

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