Will the Lake Eyre Basin be sacrificed on the altar of gas production?

Mar 9, 2023
Aerial view of Lake Eyre

The integrity of the ecology of the Lake Eyre Basin and its water supply from the Great Artesian Basin are threatened by oil and gas development and by ineffective state and federal administration.

A letter from 1000 Australian scientists calling on the Australian Government to follow the advice of the world’s scientists and prevent any further new coal and gas developments in Australia reflects their increasing anxiety that the Federal government is offering more of the same of the past decade.

Professor Fiona Stanley puts it this way “Approving coal and gas projects now is like signing a death certificate for the planet”.

The Lake Eyre Basin (LEB), occupying nearly a sixth of the land mass of Australia, is already subject to oil and gas developments and recent evidence strongly suggests much more is soon to come in what is seen as a wide underpopulated area open to the concept of ‘Western” development (plunder).

The importance of LEB is the sustainability it confers on Australia and indeed to the world as its ecological treasures unfold. The Great Artesian Basin (GAB) which lies beneath is a water insurance policy for human and biodiversity use in Australia in a world where all water resources are being rapidly consumed or polluted.

For thousands of years the Mound Springs have provided water to maintain aboriginal life, culture and the diverse biodiversity of this arid region. The Springs are now drying from the twin threats of GAB water pressure, and disturbance of the surface vents from land use, particularly at water points for stock. Much work has been done to cap bores used for stock but about 7000 still need attention.

Extractions from the GAB by the petroleum industry have been increasing. Co-produced water comes to the surface during the production of liquid petroleum and gas. After separating out the hydrocarbon component, co-produced water which contains a range of chemicals with dangers for human health and the environment is generally disposed of in evaporation ponds. BHP’s prolific water usage of 34-35 million litres of GAB water a day at Olympic Dam is also an ongoing threat.

In addition to the water supply from the Mound Springs, the LEB has an intermittent, internal, river system whereby the waterways of the Channel Country, mainly in Queensland run into the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in South Australia. These are among the world’s last unaltered river systems and were protected under “wild rivers” laws in Queensland from 2005 until 2014, when they were scrapped by the Newman government.

Lake Eyre Basin Community Advisory Committee (CAC) and Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) were established under the remit of The Lake Eyre Basin Intergovernmental Agreement 2000 between the Australian, Queensland and South Australian governments and the Northern Territory which became a party to the Agreement in 2004. Advice was provided on environmental, social and economic values to the Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum which was abolished at the Review of COAG Councils and Ministerial Forums-Report to National Cabinet October 2020. Its function was handed to “environment ministers”.

Within this complex web of administration, a LEB draft Strategic Plan was produced by the LEB secretariat in Canberra and released in August 2022.

In response CCSA QCC and Arid Lands Environment Center made a Submission to the Draft Lake Eyre Basin Strategic Plan which detailed extensive criticisms and wrote to Tanya Plibersek urging the withdrawal of the draft.

In addition, many conservation interests and individuals made submissions urging a substantial revision of the draft plan, including one on health which should always be included in environmental assessments.

It appears that the LEB Secretariat will not make the submissions publicly available; they will be assessed in-house for the final report from the Implementation Plan Working Group of state and commonwealth officers and go to the ministers for approval.

It can be assumed that this process is likely to leave open the door to further oil and gas developments and that scientific information in the submissions was unwelcome.

Currently there are 831 oil and gas wells for production and exploration– almost 99% of them on the Cooper Creek flood plains of the LEB.

In Dec 2021 the Queensland Government granted oil and gas leases in the Channel Country without consulting an alliance group of traditional owners and concerns are expressed by a thriving organic beef industry in the Channel Country floodplains.

Recent approvals for gas mining elsewhere in Queensland have engendered anxiety in scientific, environmental and indigenous groups because permission for 116 wells at Towrie in the Surat Basin was granted by the Federal Minister despite the concerns of her department over impacts on listed threatened species and communities and a deeply concerning water report from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on water. The Queensland government has also approved 55 gas wells near Chinchilla in the region where Linc Energy was responsible for extensive groundwater contamination.

The anxiety expressed in the letter from a thousand scientists over inaction on climate change and the government’s continued approval of more fossil fuel development, is further engendered by a failure of government to explain their position.

Surely they understand the compelling science? If so have they then decided that climate change is unlikely to be addressed adequately by the world community and therefore why should Australia bother? Or are there more concerning reasons for inaction? Both major parties deem it appropriate to receive donations from the immensely powerful fossil fuel interests so what other ties or agreements have impacted their decisions?

The article by Rebecca Solnit “Fossil fuels kill more people than Covid. Why are we so blind to the harms of oil and gas?” may also explain government silence. Covid still kills 500 persons per month in Australia and there have been worldwide deaths of almost 7 million in three years. Yet today we and our government show little concern about it, our minds have adapted and attention has diverted to what has become the primacy of our existence – the economy. Deaths from fossil fuels have been recognised for decades. It is likely that reporting deaths that will arise from every new gas development would carry little weight.

It is the role of government to transcend these frailties in our judgement and provide a sustainable future for Australia. Currently they are at sea without a policy paddle and cyclones approach.

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