Australia Queensland asked to consult traditional owners, scientists before examining Channel Country fracking plans
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Traditional owners and environmental groups in Queensland's Channel Country are imploring the State Government to pause consideration of applications for petroleum leases in the region until independent scientific assessments and stakeholder consultation are conducted.
Eleven applications for petroleum leases across more than 250,000 hectares of land in the Channel Country bioregion of the Lake Eyre Basin are before the Government for approval.
The applications were made in July by gas company Blue Energy but listed Origin Energy as the authorised holder.
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If granted, it could see unconventional gas extraction — fracking — occur in the region for the first time.
The Lake Eyre Basin Traditional Owners Alliance and environmental group, Western Rivers Alliance, are calling for a moratorium on considering the applications until promised stakeholder consultation has taken place.
Traditional owners 'not against progress'
The Lake Eyre Basin is one of the last remaining free-flowing river systems in the world, spread over 120 million hectares across four states and territories.
The floodplains in the Channel Country carry enormous environmental significance as a wildlife habitat, and its braided nature makes the region ideal for sustainable grazing operations.
Mithaka man Scott Gorringe is one of 15 traditional owners who make up the Lake Eyre Basin Traditional Owners Alliance, a group he said spoke "on behalf of the water".
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He said the alliance's position towards unconventional gas extraction was not an "absolute no", but the group would need to be convinced by independent scientific assessment that fracking activity would not harm the environmentally sensitive region.
"We've never, ever said 'absolute no'," Mr Gorringe said.
"If all the research is done from the science points of view, and not from the economic points of view, and [it says] that particular site just west of Windorah is a safe place to be able to do unconventional gas [extraction], I don't think the alliance will stand in the way.
"But if the research comes back and says it's not safe, the alliance will stand strong.
"We're not against progress. We're for progress in a whole heap of ways.
"For a lot of traditional owners, mining, gas, is often their only source of income and for our [native title owners, prescribed bodies corporate] to be able to play in the big time we need dollars to back us to be able to do that.
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"What we're against is if that progress is going to damage our water and our country."
Government 'sending wrong message'
Riley Rocco from the Western Rivers Alliance said the Government agreeing to consider the applications contradicted promises made by Labor at the past three state elections to strengthen wild rivers protections.
In a letter seen by the ABC, Deputy Premier Steven Miles wrote to environmental group Lock The Gate prior to the October 2020 election committing to "ensure the protection of streams and floodplains in the Queensland section of the Lake Eyre Basin" and setting up a stakeholder advisory group.
Ms Rocco said that consultation was yet to occur and the Government agreeing to consider the applications was "confusing and sends the wrong message".
"What's really frustrating is the Queensland Government is allowing them to apply for this production licence even though they've committed to protecting these areas and to consulting with stakeholders on this exact issue," Ms Rocco said.
"It doesn't put a lot of faith in that commitment that they're going to be working with us to ensure protection in those areas."
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She said while the group was calling for temporary protections to be put in place while consultation occurs, its long-term position was that no unconventional gas extraction should be approved in the Channel Country.
"We want to see areas that are just no-go zones," Ms Rocco said.
"Where the water flows slowly and fills the channels and the floodplains and brings up all that lovely pasture, you have multiple points where the water can be diverted.
"Spills are a given, so even if they're very low risk … any risk of a spill on a Channel Country floodplain on this amazing area is just too big."
Fears of being 'left out of the room'
Proposed legislative amendments which restricted, but did not ban, unconventional gas extraction were sent by the government to a small, select group of stakeholders at the end of 2019.
All consultation on Channel Country protections was postponed in February 2020 due to COVID-19 and is yet to recommence.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Science said the government remained committed to working with First Nations peoples, industry, local councils, stakeholders and communities to ensure the sustainable management of the Lake Eyre Basin.
It reiterated the comment to establishing a Lake Eyre Basin stakeholder working group.
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Mr Gorringe said, if and when it does, traditional owners need to be properly engaged.
"Things are being done to us and for us, and never, ever with us," he said.
"What we're asking for is the government, petroleum companies and gas companies to come and speak with us as an organised group of Aboriginal traditional owners … to do this properly.
"What we fear is that we're going to again be left out of the room.
"We're going to be tapping at the door trying to come in, and they'll let us in when they feel like they want to.
"We don't want to be given a little handout at the end, we want to be there right at the start of all of this stuff, and right at this moment, we're not."
In a statement, the Department of Resources said that in addition to the requirement for a petroleum lease, a company must undertake a rigorous assessment process in order to obtain an environmental authority, which must be granted prior to any activities being undertaken.
"Should an environmental authority be granted, the proponent must comply with any conditions set by the Department of Environment and Science regarding environmental controls and restrictions as well as the state's strict land access requirements," it said.
"In the Channel Country Strategic Environmental Area, additional requirements also apply under the Regional Planning Interest Act which must be satisfied before any activities can commence."
Origin Energy told the ABC it "would adopt all regulations and put in place approved management plans, procedures and controls to protect the environment," should its applications be approved.
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