Eyre not gas: The beautiful Lake Eyre basin is threatened by 831 oil and gas wells. Is this really what Australians want?
October 5, 2022
Image credit: Doug Gimesy
The heart-shaped Lake Eyre basin covers around one-sixth of Australia. It contains one of the few remaining pristine river systems in the world. But new research shows that oil and gas activity is extending its tentacles into these fragile environments. Can he survive?
The study, by myself and my colleague Amy Walburn, investigated current and future oil and gas production and exploration in the floodplains of the Lake Eyre basin. We have found 831 oil and gas wells in the basin – and that number is set to grow. Moreover, state and Commonwealth legislation has largely failed to control this development.
State and national governments are encouraging massive gas development to boost the Australian economy. But as we show, it is likely to cause significant damage to the Lake Eyre basin and its rivers.
A precious natural wonder
The Lake Eyre basin is probably the last major free-flowing river system on Earth – meaning no major dams or irrigation diversions stem the flow of the rivers.
This land has been supported for tens of thousands of years by First Nations peoples including the Arrernte, Dieri, Mithaka and Wangkangurru. This support continues today.
The largest rivers feeding the basin – the Diamantina, the Georgina and the Cooper – originate in western Queensland and flow into southern Australia where they empty into Kathi Thanda-Lake Eyre.
Winding south, the rivers cut through deserts and inundate floodplains, lakes and wetlands, including 33 nationally significant wetlands.
This natural phenomenon has existed for millennia. It supports incredible natural plant, fish and bird booms, as well as tourism and livestock grazing. But our new research shows that oil and gas development threatens this precious natural wonder.
A massive industrial creep
Our analysis used satellite imagery to map the locations of oil and gas development in the Lake Eyre basin since the first oil wells were created in the late 1950s.
We found 831 oil and gas production and exploration wells in the floodplains of the Lake Eyre basin, nearly 99% of which are in the Cooper Creek floodplains. The wells pass beneath the river and its floodplains in the geological Cooper Basin, considered to have Australia’s largest onshore oil and natural gas deposits.
Our research also shows how quickly oil and gas extraction in the Lake Eyre basin is set to grow. We have identified approvals or license applications covering 4.5 million hectares of floodplains in the Lake Eyre Basin, South Australia and Queensland.
The CSIRO recently looked at likely scenarios of 1,000 to 1,500 additional unconventional gas wells in the Cooper Basin over the next 50 years. He predicted that these shafts would be built on “pads” – areas occupied by mining equipment or facilities – about 4 kilometers apart. They would typically access gas using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking is the process of extracting what is known as “unconventional gas”. It involves using water and chemicals to fracture deep rocks to extract the gas. This polluted water, known to be toxic to fishis brought to the surface and stored in dams.
Two places we focused on were in South Australia in the protected area, Ramsar-listed Coongie Lakes sitewhich was recognized as being of international importance in 1987. The other site was in the Channel country of Queensland, also in the Cooper floodplain.
In total, at the Coongie Lakes sites, we have seen a threefold increase in the number of wells: from 95 in 1987 to 296 last year. We have also identified 869 kilometers of roads and 316 hectares of storage pits, such as those that retain water.
Some of these dams could potentially hold polluted fracking water and be overwhelmed by flooding, particularly at Coongie Lakes.
A disaster waiting to happen?
Examples from around the world already show that oil and gas exploration and development can reduce water quality by interrupting sediments and causing chemical concentration. Production waste can also degrade floodplains vegetation.
The CSIRO says risks associated with oil and gas development in the Cooper Basin include:
- dust and emissions from machinery that can cause habitat loss, including changes in air quality, noise and light pollution
- disposal and storage of site materials that may contaminate soil, surface water and/or groundwater through accidental spills, leaks and leaching
- unplanned fracturing and drilling into underground faults, unintended geological strata or abandoned wells
- gases and fluids contaminating soil, surface water, groundwater and air
- changes in groundwater pressures could reactivate subsurface faults and cause earthquakes.
Fracturing for unconventional gas also requires drawing large amounts of water rivers and groundwater.
Laws have failed
Our findings raise important questions for Australian governments and the community.
Are we ready to accept the industrialization of the Lake Eyre basin, and the associated risk of pollution and other environmental damage? Have the companies involved obtained a social license for these activities? Where do the benefits go and who will bear the social, environmental and financial costs of such intense development?
Clearly, state and federal environmental protections have failed to stop the basin’s unfettered development.
These policies include the Lake Eyre Basin OKsigned by the States, the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory, which has been in place since 2000.
Australia’s federal environmental law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – is meant to protect areas of national significance such as Ramsar Wetlands. Yet our research has identified that only eight developments in the basin have been submitted to the Commonwealth Government for approval and only one has been deemed significant enough to be assessed. This legislation does not adequately address the cumulative impacts of development.
And finally, gas extraction and production are associated to substantial ‘fugitive’ emissions – greenhouse gases that escape into the atmosphere. This undermines Australia’s emissions reduction efforts under the Paris Agreement.
The governments of South Australia and Queensland should limit mining development in the Lake Eyre basin. And stronger federal oversight of this nationally significant natural treasure is urgently needed.
In response to this article, the chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, Samantha McCulloch, said in a statement:
The oil and gas industry takes its responsibilities to the environment and local communities seriously and is one of the most regulated sectors in Australia. The industry has operated in Queensland for over a decade and gas produced in Queensland plays an important role in Australia’s energy security.