Exposed: Santos quietly granted right to explore Channel Country

The Queensland Government gave energy company Santos extended rights to explore environmentally significant parts of the Channel Country for potential commercial gas extraction, documents obtained by the ABC under right to information laws show.

Mar 05, 2020, updated Mar 05, 2020
The region's rivers and floodplains sit over the Great Artesian Basin. Photo: ABC

The region's rivers and floodplains sit over the Great Artesian Basin. Photo: ABC

The Channel Country is a vast swathe of outback Queensland, known for the spidery rivulets that cross the plains.

The region’s rivers and floodplains sit over the Great Artesian Basin, feed into Lake Eyre and support major organic farming operations.

Angus Emmott, a grazier at Noonbah station near Longreach, said these were the “last major desert rivers left on the face of the planet that aren’t impacted by human development”.

He said the region was like an organic feedlot, that could result in cattle putting on 2kg of weight a day eating chemical-free pasture.

“It supports — by area — the largest organic agriculture operation on the planet — it supports a huge area of clean, green beef,” Emmott said.

Exploration granted in ‘strategic environmental areas’

The State Government had previously vowed to protect the Channel Country’s floodplains.

In a statement in October last year, Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch told ABC News the Channel Country had “outstanding social, cultural and environmental attributes, as well as economic opportunities”.

“The Government has committed to work with traditional owners, stakeholders and communities to ensure the state’s Channel Country is protected,” Enoch said.

But government documents obtained under right to information laws and provided to ABC News show in March last year the Department of Natural Resources, Mining and Energy gave Santos a licence to prospect for gas in the Channel Country until 2030.

Mapping conducted by environmental group Lock the Gate shows the areas Santos can look for commercial gas opportunities in, including so-called “strategic environmental areas”.

Lock the Gate’s Queensland programs coordinator Ellie Smith has questioned why prospecting for commercial gas would be allowed if the State Government was truly planning to protect the area.

“Despite the commitment the Queensland Government made to protect the Channel Country, they were allowing new prospecting to go on in the floodplains in the region,” Smith said.

“They’re extremely significant and they are very fragile, so things like well-heads, the pipelines, the access roads that would be needed for full-scale shale gas fracking operation, would totally disrupt the river system.”

Fracking fears

Former Queensland Government environmental scientist Tom Crothers now works as a water management consultant and said the prospecting licence raised big concerns.

“The Channel Country is an iconic piece of country in the Lake Eyre Basin,” he said.

“It benefits from natural flooding through the channels and the braided channels across the floodplain and it produces fantastic grazing for the pastoralists,” Crothers said.

While conventional gas was already extracted from the region, Crothers said these approvals were for so-called unconventional gas extraction.

“It is highly likely they’ll have to frack those wells to get them to produce commercial quantities of gas,” Crothers said.

He said that would use millions of litres of water per well-head, which would likely be taken from the nearest major water source — the Great Artesian Basin.

“Fracking also uses chemicals and there’s a concern about if those chemicals are spilt or there’s a well blow-out, where the chemicals might end up, whether they could compromise the quality of the Great Artesian Basin,” he said.

“We can’t say [fracking is] 100 per cent safe — if you hear Government or industry say that, it’s just spin.”

More than a dozen groups including traditional owners, Landcare groups and AgForce have written to the State Government raising concerns over the protection of the Channel Country.

Emmott said the floodplains should not be disturbed.

“It’s just a really unique part of Australia that hasn’t been impacted by human development — we’re talking about an area that’s internationally significant — not just nationally significant,” Emmott said.

The State Government has been contacted for comment.

– ABC / Exclusive by George Roberts

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