14 February 2020
Dear Premier Palaszczuck,
Delivering on the Queensland Government’s promise to protect Channel Country rivers
The Western Rivers Alliance is an informal alliance between individual graziers, Traditional Owners, conservation organisations and scientists advocating for the protection of rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country.
The Western Rivers Alliance urges your Government to deliver its election commitment to protect the rivers of the Channel Country by amending the Regional Planning Interests Regulation 2014 prohibiting all new resource activities from the rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country. We are gravely concerned about the impacts that industrial scale unconventional gas activities (fracking) would have on the rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country.
The outstanding values of the rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country
The Channel Country’s rivers are among the last free flowing desert rivers on earth, supporting an abundance of wildlife, a highly productive beef industry and important Indigenous cultural values. There is broad community and stakeholder support for protecting the rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country, including local pastoralists, Traditional Owners, scientists and conservationists.
For its Traditional Owners the Channel Country is a rich cultural landscape. The rivers and the floodplains are marked with resting places, birthing places, places of ceremony, and provide the foundation for stories, that often begin and end at significant waterholes, that govern tradition, laws, relationships, and ways of being. Traditional Owners of the Channel Country have over 50,000 years of connection and cultural obligation to the land and water (1).
Organic beef from the Channel Country attracts up to 50% above the market price(2). The rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country support a strong agricultural sector with around 33% of people in the region directly employed in agriculture and in some local government areas this is as high as 50%(3).
The healthy landscapes of the Channel Country are the region’s most important asset. Tourism is already worth more than $713 million and supports 3700 jobs in Outback Queensland. This helps to strengthen the resilience of the regional economy.
The iconic Channel Country is deeply valued by people across Queensland (and the world) for its beauty, its history, and its cultural values. Its recognition as a place of global ecological significance is a point of pride for many Queenslanders. Following the Queensland Government’s announcement of the proposed approach to protection, the Western Rivers Alliance launched a petition calling on the Queensland Government to protect the Channel Country rivers and floodplains from unconventional gas (fracking) activities. To date, this petition has already attracted over 5,000 signatures.
The very real threat of unconventional gas activities
The intensity of exploration for gas extraction in the Channel Country has greatly increased in recent years. Industry has found significant potential for deeper shale gas developments in the basin. The Australian Council of Learned Academies has estimated that the Cooper Basin could support more than 9,000 shale gas wells. Analysis of the publicly available data on petroleum leases show that as of September 2019 exploration leases now cover 2,881,055 hectares of the region- 43% of this area is on the floodplains.
The proposed approach to prohibit “high impact petroleum and gas activities” from the Channel Country Designated Precinct (DP) will have a negligible effect on preventing the adverse impacts gas mining activities will have on the floodplains. The list proposed ‘high impact petroleum and gas activities’ is quite peculiar. It includes activities such as gravel pits which are demonstrably not of any significant impact on the Channel Country’s vast floodplains, and activities such as accommodation which would be unlikely to ever be put on floodplains. Most importantly, under the current definition of “high impact petroleum and gas activities” a high density of wells, well pads, pipelines, and roads would still be permitted on the floodplains.
Research into the risks and potential impacts of the expansion of the unconventional gas (fracking) industry has revealed the following concerns for the future of the floodplains:
- Loss of beneficial flooding: The current proposal would permit a web of disturbance consisting of many wells, roads and pipelines. This is likely to disrupt and change flood flow patterns. On the flat Channel Country floodplains even low above-ground structures can cause major changes in overland flows. Fragmentation of the floodplain would decrease plant growth, including pasture growth, over potentially large areas. Diverted floodwaters could prevent the recharging of water holes that would normally support people and nature in the dry times- threatening the long-term survival of many plants, animals, and cultural sites in the landscape (4).
- Pollution: Spills of contaminated wastewater and other hazardous materials can be expected at 2-16% of all well sites (5). Under the current proposal, piping and other transport infrastructure for wastewater and other hazardous material would be permitted. This risk of soil and water contamination is a serious threat to the Channel Country’s ‘clean and green’ and organic beef industries.
- Pressure on the Great Artesian Basin: Drilling and fracking of deep shale gas wells often requires large volumes of water. The Australian Council of Learned Academies has warned that a fully developed shale gas industry in an arid area has the potential to become a major user of groundwater (6).
- Lost amenity and tourism value: Densely spaced wells would create an industrialised landscape, threatening the integrity of the existing landscapes of natural rivers and floodplains greatly appreciated by both locals and tourists who visit the area and contribute to the economy.
- Weeds: Spread of major pest weeds such as Prickly Acacia and Parkinsonia to new areas is facilitated by the creation of new road networks and increased traffic. This threatens both agriculture and the environment (7).
- Erosion: Drilling of wells and construction of roads for gas mining are both activities likely to disturb sediments and impact on water quality and the persistence of water holes during dry times.
Unconventional gas mining across the floodplains presents an unacceptable risk- all activities associated with petroleum and gas exploration and mining should be clearly prohibited. Without such clear prohibitions, the Queensland Government will fail to meet their election commitment to protect the rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country.
Protecting all major rivers and floodplains
The Western Rivers Alliance calls on the Queensland Government to provide the same level of protection for all major rivers and floodplains with the Lake Eyre Basin (Qld). Currently, vast floodplains and significant upstream river areas that were given a level of protection under the former Wild Rivers Act are currently unprotected under the Regional Planning Interests Act. We call on the Queensland Government to restore these protections by extending the DP to include river and floodplain areas formally protected under previous legislation.
Strengthening the Strategic Environmental Area
The Western Rivers Alliance welcomes the proposal to list the additional environmental attributes of geomorphic processes, functioning riparian processes, functioning wildlife corridors, and Aboriginal cultural heritage to the Channel Country Strategic Environmental Area. These are all critically important values to the healthy functioning of the Channel Country rivers and floodplains.
The Western Rivers Alliance notes that the proposed expansion of the Strategic Environmental Areas to cover the entire of the Queensland Lake Eyre Basin catchment area has caused a considerable amount of community confusion and concern. The Western Rivers Alliance supports stronger protection for the rivers and floodplains. Wee question the necessity of the Strategic Environmental Areas and the associated Regional Interests Development Approval process to deliver any necessary additional environmental protection over the catchments as a whole. As such, we view the proposed expansion as causing significant angst for unclear outcomes and thus do not support this proposal.
We note the proposal for a ‘streamlining’ of the Regional Interests Development Approval and environmental approvals process. In the absence of any further information, the Western Rivers Alliance does not support this proposal.
Providing support for the aspirations of the Traditional Owners
In the briefing on the proposal provided to the Western Rivers Alliance in December the Western Rivers was encouraged to hear the expressed aspirations of the Lake Eyre basin Traditional Owners Alliance acknowledged. However, the proposal itself does little to reflect these aspirations and in some cases directly contradicts the position statements provided by the Lake Eyre Basin Traditional Owners Alliance.
Traditional Owners from across the Channel Country have worked hard for many years to secure lasting protections for the rivers and floodplains. As reflected in the Tibooburra Resolution (2011), the Our Water, Our Future (2019) and Healthy Water, Healthy Future (2019) statements it is the position of the Lake Eyre Basin Traditional Owner Alliance for all new unconventional gas activities to be clearly prohibited from the floodplains of the Channel Country. The Western Rivers Alliance supports this position and calls on the Queensland Government to meet their election commitment to work with the Traditional Owners to protect the Channel Country rivers and floodplains by clearly prohibiting all unconventional gas activities from the rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country.
The Western Rivers Alliance calls on the Queensland Government to support Traditional Owner aspirations to lead in the protection and management of Channel Country rivers and floodplains in meaningful ways under the guidance of the Lake Eyre Basin Traditional Owner Alliance.
Release of clearer explanatory information and scientific evidence
It is our understanding that last year the Queensland Government commissioned an independent report prepared by a panel of expert scientists into the risks associated with unconventional gas activities in the Lake Eyre Basin (Qld) including a hazard risk assessment of such activities. We request that this report, including the hazard risk assessment, is released immediately to the public in order for stakeholders to make informed decisions based on the latest available science.
The lack of clear explanatory information on the proposed approach has led to a considerable amount of community confusion across all stakeholder groups and has allowed misinformation to flourish. We request that the Queensland Government release further explanatory information immediately, information that is written in plain English.
We urge the Queensland Government to focus on delivering their election commitment to protect of the rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country by amending the Regional Planning Interests Regulation 2014 to clearly prohibit all new petroleum and gas activities from the floodplains. This is a reasonable and balanced ask. It does not preclude gas projects occurring off the floodplains. Such an approach would obtain strong local support, as well as much broader support from Queenslanders.
(1) Gorringe, S (2017). ‘Looking after the rivers- a view from nearly 50 000 years of experience’ in Kingsford, R (ed.) Lake Eyre Basin Rivers: Environmental, Social, and Economic Importance. CSIRO Publishing.
(2) Brook, D (2017). ‘Clean green beef- the importance of free-flowing rivers in the Lake Eyre Basin’ in Kingsford, R (ed.) Lake Eyre Basin Rivers: Environmental, Social, and Economic Importance. CSIRO Publishing.
(3) Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016). ‘Barcoo LGA, Boulia LGA, Diamantina LGA, Winton LGA, and Longreach LGA’.
(4) Marshall, Clifford, and Choy (2013) Hazards posed to riverine aquatic ecosystems in Lake Eyre Basin from Future petroleum and gas mining activities
(5) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2015) Review of State and Industry Spill Data: Characterization of Hydraulic Fracturing-Related Spills
(6) Crothers (2016) Report into the vulnerability of the Cooper Basin’s Surface and Groundwater Resources to the Development of Unconventional Gas Industry
(7) Marshall, Clifford, and Choy (2013) Hazards posed to riverine aquatic ecosystems in Lake Eyre Basin from Future petroleum and gas mining activities