Photo: Helen Commens

The Risks of Unconventional Gas Mining for Land, Water and Life

The Channel Country’s rivers and wetlands and their surrounding landscapes have long been recognised for their ecological, scientific, aesthetic and cultural values, and for their superb natural contribution to a clean and green extensive pastoral industry. They form the northern and eastern catchments of the Lake Eyre Basin, the last great unregulated and unpolluted desert river system – a magnificent and vast region of natural beauty in a world where nature has shrunk alarmingly as a consequence of human industrialisation, urbanisation and over-population.

Within the past 50 to 60 years, however, the hitherto largely undisturbed landscapes of the Channel Country have undergone continual encroachment by oil and gas exploration and production. This activity has so far been chiefly focused in the Cooper Creek floodplains and surrounding desert of northeast South Australia and far southwest Queensland. Pastoralists and scattered communities in the Cooper Creek Channel Country and the desert catchments of Lake Eyre are no strangers to the conventional oil and gas industry tapping the Cooper and Eromanga geological basins.

There have been disturbing incidents. The Santos Zeus Field oil spill of 2013 made national headlines, and the alarming Moomba explosion and fire of 1982 in the ‘Corner Country’ has become something of an Outback legend. Oil and gas exploration and production have introduced an extensive spider web of roads, seismic lines, wells, pipelines and associated infrastructure to the Outback. A night flight over the region reveals a vast array of lights from the major production fields such as Moomba, Jackson and Ballera and numerous satellite fields. Seen from altitude in daylight, the regular crisscrossing of seismic lines is a stark contrast to the natural patterns of this landscape shaped by the actions of wind and water. Only the great distances between installations allow the natural landscapes for the most part to reassert themselves when viewed from ground level.

For the most part, the industry has generally coexisted with Outback communities, but this varies according to circumstances and the individuals involved. Whether they are prospectors, miners or resource companies, non-pastoral leaseholders rarely seem concerned about their impacts on the surface but their activities can have far reaching consequences for sheep and cattle producers – and Traditional Owners. Important cultural sites have been damaged and even obliterated because no one was around to intervene when a seismic line was inadvertently bulldozed through an area of cultural significance.

Coexistence with the oil and gas industry means the pastoralist has to learn to accommodate large volumes of traffic on property roads as well as the persistent presence of resource company personnel who are often strangers. However, it must be acknowledged that resource companies with permanent facilities on pastoral land often compensate for their intrusion with helpful assistance, such as access to water wells and supply of used materials such as drill stem, a valuable material for building stockyards.

Nothing, however, can compensate for damage to ecosystems or landscapes. The seismic exploration phase, involving disturbance to soil and vegetation over a large area, is often more disruptive to pastoral operations and sustainable land management than well drilling and eventual production, which are confined to specific locations. It takes a long time for native vegetation to recover. Many seismic lines cut before environmental codes of practice were established are now irreversibly eroding. Over time, creeks, channels and waterholes can accumulate huge amounts of erosion sediments carried along by the rare storms and the ‘boom’ season runoff. This reduces waterhole capacity and habitat values critical to life during the long ‘bust’ seasons.

The expansion of the unconventional oil and gas industry into the Channel Country is a relatively new development. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the proliferation of new oil and gas fields in the region will detract from its natural values. The proposed exploitation of shale and tight gas is particularly alarming. It is vital that residents of the region familiarise themselves with the potential scale of this new industry, its inputs and unconventional techniques such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), so as to understand the risks for scarce water resources, vast floodplains and the natural ecosystems on which life and sustainable human industry depend.

Earlier threats to the ecological integrity and pastoral sustainability of the Channel Country – in the form of a large irrigated cotton farm proposal for Cooper Creek – were met with fierce resistance from Channel Country pastoralists and local residents, allied with scientists, conservationists and concerned Australian citizens. An enlightened decision by the Queensland Labor government in 1999 prohibited any such large-scale irrigation development. Further levels of protection were provided by the Wild Rivers Act 2005 and by wild river declarations for the Cooper, Diamantina and Georgina-Eyre Creek systems in 2011.

It is significant that the Wild Rivers Act was the only statute in Queensland that could not be overridden by the Coordinator General under the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1974. It should also be noted that there was extensive community consultation and an extremely high level of local landholder support for the Channel Country’s wild river declarations. The wild river declarations afforded strong protection against any development threatening the ecological integrity of the rivers and their associated floodplains and wetlands, while allowing some developments to continue as appropriate to the conditions in less sensitive areas. Sadly, the protection was short-lived.

In the lead up to the 2012 Queensland election, LNP Leader Campbell Newman signalled his intention to revoke the Wild Rivers declarations over Cape York Peninsula where Traditional Owners opposed their listing. It wasn’t until late 2013 that the new government revealed its plan to revoke the Channel Country declarations as well. Resources Minister Andrew Cripps then vigorously promoted an unconventional oil and gas industry in the Channel Country, releasing A Framework for the Next Generation of Onshore Oil and Natural Gas in Queensland in July 2014 and the Cooper Basin Industry Strategy in December 2014. New and much weaker legislation was introduced to allow the oil and gas industry almost unfettered access to our cherished rivers and floodplains. A raft of legal amendments, notably including the Water Act 2000, ensured speedy assessments, a minimum of red tape and the rapid granting of licenses and approvals.

In spite of pre-2015 election promises by the Labor government of Annastacia Palaszczuk to restore wild river type protections, Resources Minister Anthony Lynham granted even more concessions to the oil and gas resources industry in the form of 11,000 square kilometres of new exploration licences in the Cooper and Eromanga basins beneath the Channel Country. Some, but not all, of the worst of the LNP’s legislative amendments have been ‘wound back’, but the government has not yet fulfilled its promise to protect our rivers.

It is noteworthy that there has been something of a ‘revolving door’ between senior government and party officials and highly placed resource industry executives in Queensland. Much of the process described above took place when this cross-fertilisation was in full swing. Significant political donations and payments for access to ministers were also being made by minerals and energy resources companies during this time. Both sides of politics were involved.

The risks identified make the reinstatement of legislative protection for the natural values of the Channel Country a matter of urgency.

Dr Bob Morrish has spent 40 years living and working in the Channel Country. He chaired the Cooper’s Creek Protection Group for 19 years and is an active member of the Western Rivers Alliance.

Photo: Helen Commens