The Queensland government will ban new oil and gas developments in the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Basin’s rivers and floodplains – fulfilling a nine-year-old election commitment to restore protection for the state’s pristine canal country.
The state’s prime minister, Steven Mileswill announce new environmental regulations on Friday for the basin, which is one of the world’s last intact river systems.
The ecosystem was protected under “wild rivers” laws in Queensland from 2005 to 2014, when they were scrapped by the Newman government.
Labor promised to introduce protections for Queensland’s pristine rivers from large-scale industrial activity before coming to power in 2015, but since then the state has gas drilling plans quietly progressed by granting oil and gas leases.
By announcing new protections, Miles would address two of the environmental movement’s most pressing concerns, emission targets and developments that threaten the canal country within a week of being sworn in.
Under the changes, any future oil or gas drilling in the floodplain areas of the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre basin will be blocked. Holders of exploration permits will be able to apply for production leases until 30 August next year. This sunset term will not apply to any “unconventional” gas drilling proposals.
Guardian Australia reported in 2020 that an independent scientific panel commissioned by the Queensland government recommended a ban on fracking in the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre basin, but the experts’ findings were kept secret by the state and ultimately ignored.
The new protections will be designed to allow for the growth of the state’s planned Northwest Mineral Province, and conventional gas drilling proposals will still be considered if they are located away from the rivers and floodplains.
Earlier this year, Queensland sought public feedback on possible protections for the canal country. Of 17,500 submissions, 98% argued for stronger environmental measures.
Amid the process, gas companies appeared to be backing away from plans to drill in the area. Guardian Australia reported in July that Origin Energy had 10 rental houses surrendered in the sink.
Miles said it was “important that my Government protects this great part of our state for generations of Queenslanders to come”.
“The changes strike a good balance in preserving the Queensland Lake Eyre Basin region, while providing industry with the tools they need to grow and develop,” he said.
“While these changes may have a small effect on some future gas developments, I have asked the resources department to propose projects that will more than offset any gas reserves affected.”
The government will seek to highlight benefits that will provide protection to the agriculture and tourism sectors.
Environment Minister Leanne Linard said healthy water flow is “the lifeblood of these landscapes”.
“When the bigger flows come, these areas and the wetlands and water holes in which they feed come alive, with waterfowl, such as pelicans and stilts, arriving in their thousands to breed,” she said.
The environmental group Lock the Gate Alliance has been campaigning for protection for years. The group’s national co-ordinator, Ellen Roberts, said it “welcomed” the move, but said it would seek further clarity on the details.
“Unconventional oil and gas extraction can require thousands of wells to be drilled across a landscape, with each well requiring millions of gallons of water for a single fracture,” Roberts said.
“This kind of development would have destroyed the fragile and unique rivers and floodplains of the canal country.”
Roberts said the provision allowing companies to apply for production leases until August was “disturbing” and that the group would “intensely scrutinize” plans submitted before then.
“A large area of the floodplain is covered by existing petroleum exploration leases, including potential commercial areas,” she said.
“Conventional projects are also risky, posing a pollution threat to surface and groundwater, and have seriously affected the flow of the canals in parts of the Lake Eyre basin.”