A federal government scientific report has issued a warning about chemicals used in unconventional gas drilling in the sensitive wild rivers of the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre basin.
As the government weighs up recommendations to expand the gas industry for a post-coronavirus recovery, the western rivers of Queensland loom as a significant test for how authorities will balance economics with the environment.
The rivers and floodplains that fracture and snake towards the great inland lake are largely unaffected by the sort of developments and other interventions that have made a mess of the Murray-Darling system. At the same time, the channel country area is considered to have significant potential for the rapid expansion of gas drilling.
The federal government’s bioregional assessments program this month released a report on the region, in which it identified several significant “knowledge gaps” about the geology and the impact of gas development on the waterways, which require further study.
These gaps include whether surface infrastructure could divert floodwaters; the potential for unconventional gas developments to affect the migration of groundwater between different formations; and the potential for the extraction of water from shallow aquifers to impact ground and surface water.
“Further work is required to develop conceptual models that explicitly link risks due to shale, tight and deep coal gas development with individual threatened species, other important ecological assets and other extant threatening processes,” the report said.
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It said of 116 chemicals known to be used in drilling and fracking, 33 were assessed as being of “potentially high concern” and 41 were of “potential concern”.
Last month, the Guardian reported that a leaked Queensland government scientific report – made confidential and ignored by the state – recommended a ban on fracking in the channel country and the exclusion of all gas wells from floodplain areas.
Concerns about gas development in the channel country are not necessarily related to the broader debate about the safety of practices such as fracking, which advocates say cause little harm with proper regulation, but which remains a controversial and often unpopular practice.
Rather, there are specific concerns in the channel country, where no two flood events are the same and locals say water flows can be diverted or blocked by the most minor artificial structure in the floodplain channels.
“[An obstruction] 10 inches or a foot [30cm] high can block floodwater back for some distance,” says Peter Douglas, a grazier from the Barcoo shire.
Douglas said the wild rivers protections in place in Queensland – overhauled by the Newman government in 2014 – had changed the regulatory situation from one where “you couldn’t turn a bulldozer around” to an open-slather arrangement with no real restrictions.
Gas drilling – and fracking – has taken place in the area since 1969 and the industry says it has not yet had a detrimental impact. Douglas said his concern about the expansion of the industry, and potential for unconventional gas drilling in the area, was that it would likely require larger infrastructure.
“You stick a couple of pads in line across the Cooper it will change the flow of the Cooper. Every flood we have is different – it’s close to impossible to do any modelling.”
Riley Rocco, the coordinator of the Western Rivers Alliance, said the federal government’s bioregional assessment report identified several potential hazards and that the channel country should be considered unique.
“These are the last remaining free-flowing desert rivers in the world,” Rocco said.
“We want to see all unconventional gas activity banned from the river and floodplain. While everything is on hold (due to the coronavirus), there should be a moratorium on any new exploration or production or lease to ensure this isn’t seen as an opportunity for the gas company to get a foothold in new areas.”
Labor had opposed the scrapping of wild rivers legislation in opposition; now in government it has promised a review of environmental protections but at the same time has approved new large-scale exploration permits. The ABC has revealed gas giant Santos was given extended rights to explore the channel country last year.
As part of its review, the state commissioned an environmental report but ultimately buried its findings and released a framework that critics say favours the gas industry. The Queensland environment minister, Leeanne Enoch, has said the framework seeks to strike a balance between protections and encouraging economic activity.
The gas industry’s peak body, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, said oil and gas activity had occurred in the Lake Eyre basin and elsewhere in Queensland for more than 50 years.
“Just last month, a CSIRO field study found the use of hydraulic fracturing has little to no impact on groundwater, waterways, soils or air quality,” APPEA Queensland director Georgy Mayo said.
“The [federal government bioregional assessment] report is a risk assessment only and has not considered the extensive regulatory controls, in place at a state and federal level, which are supplemented by the world-class operating standards of the oil and gas industry.
“The baseline data, knowledge and conceptual models outlined in the report are the building blocks for the [next stage] impact analysis and management for the … region.”
This content was originally published here.