An independent scientific panel commissioned by the Queensland government recommended a ban on fracking in the environmentally sensitive Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre basin, but the experts’ findings were made secret by the state and ultimately ignored.
Guardian Australia has obtained a leaked copy of the panel’s report, which was blocked from public release and ruled subject to cabinet confidentiality by the Palaszczuk government last year.
It recommended excluding all gas wells from floodplains in the western Queensland channel country, and that unconventional petroleum and gas production be designated as an “unacceptable use” in the area.
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Conservation groups have been agitating for months for the public release of the scientists’ report.
After approaching the government to seek a response, Guardian Australia was subsequently contacted unsolicited by the gas industry lobby, which stated it was aware of the story and offered to provide a comment.
In December last year, the government announced it had developed a draft environmental framework for the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre basin that would “balance … economic prosperity and ecological sustainability”.
The plan proposed few additional restrictions on the area’s rapidly expanding gas industry.
It has since been revealed by the ABC that last year, while the framework was being developed and scientific studies under way, Queensland granted gas company Santos expanded exploration rights covering large swaths of the channel country.
The remote regenerative waterways that flow into the great inland lake are largely unaffected by the sort of actions that have made a mess of the Murray-Darling, where the river system has been placed under pressure over decades by a mix of large-scale irrigation, floodplain development, dams and diversions.
The Newman Liberal National government in Queensland in 2014 repealed the “Wild Rivers Act” which had included protections for three rivers in the state’s west – the Diamantina, the Georgina and Cooper Creek.
Labor promised to reinstate those environmental protections before coming to power in 2015.
Last year it told the Guardian it was “undertaking an evidence-based review of the current regulatory framework” before announcing its new draft proposals in December. It is understood that a key part of that review was the scientific panel study, which was made subject to cabinet confidentiality after completion and blocked from public release.
A leaked copy of the report shows the panel raised concerns about potential gasfield development and how it might alter the course of the free-flowing rivers.
“The goal of the review is to protect and avoid widespread and irreversible impacts on rivers with all, or nearly all, of their environmental attributes in tact,” the report said.
It found potential impacts from petroleum, gas, mining and infrastructure development included the “loss of connectivity … creating barriers on floodplains diverting flows away from natural wetlands”.
Many of the concerns raised were specific to the sensitive environment in the channel country, rather than broad concerns related to fracking or gas drilling. The panel said many of the potential impacts of gas development in the basin were not “fully understood, nor their magnitude quantifiable”.
The report said potential impacts included “direct loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitats”; changes to groundwater quality; the risk of well failure; the reinjection of flowback water; spills of drilling fluids; and changes to overland flow paths due to infrastructure and subsidence.
The panel wanted the state to establish a designated wetland and floodplain precinct in which fracking would be banned, and gas wells restricted from frequently flooded areas.
Traditional owners, environmentalists and the agriculture industry all raised concerns about the government’s consultation on its draft framework. The conservation groups say the proposals ignore much of the expert panel’s advice and does little to restrict the gas industry or to improve protections for free-flowing rivers.
The director of the Pew Charitable Trusts, Barry Traill, said it was “very disappointing” the government had not released the expert report.
“[The report] confirms our assessment of the environment of the region and the risks of fracking and unconventional gas mining is that the floodplains especially are sensitive, ecologically and economically tremendously important,” Traill said. And that they should have a high level of protection from risky activities.
“The additional environmental protections they proposed in December added virtually nothing to what was already in place.”
Richard Kingsford, a leading river ecologist who was not on the expert panel, said there was a clear disconnect between government’s “motherhood statements” about protecting the river system and actual protections.
“My concern is the scientific report sort of spells out the risks to this ecosystem. And it seems like the government approach to this is not adequately taking into account those risks,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Queensland environment minister, Leeanne Enoch, said the government “does not discuss cabinet matters”.
“What I will say is that the Queensland government is committed to working with traditional owners, stakeholders, environment groups and communities to achieve a balance between the long-term protection of the rivers and floodplains of the Lake Eyre Basin and the cultural, social and economic priorities of the region,” the spokesperson said.
“The government will also work with other departments and government bodies as well as consider the wide range of information available regarding this topic to ensure the right balance is reached.”
Late on Wednesday, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (Appea) contacted the Guardian, aware it had a copy of the cabinet report. It said the association had not seen a copy.
“The case for banning an essential economic activity such as onshore exploration in a large part of Queensland simply does not stack up,” Appea Queensland director Georgy Mayo said.
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“The oil and gas industry has been producing natural gas in the Lake Eyre basin for over 40 years with no significant environmental impact as demonstrated by the fact the rivers in the basin remain pristine.
“Just last week, an independent and authoritative review by Australia’s leading scientific agency, the CSIRO, found no negative impacts of hydraulic fracturing in Queensland that cannot be managed by robust regulation.
“Communities, councils and traditional owners in the Lake Eyre basin support the industry.”
This content was originally published here.