‘The living heart of Australia’: fracking plans threaten fragile channel country

Dude Kidd’s ute barrels between a fence line and a sand dune as eagles circle over some unidentified quarry under the magic light of an outback sunset.

“Did you see anything on the ground … a carcass?” asks Kidd. We reply in the negative. “They’ll be after grasshoppers.”

Kidd’s Ourdel station, outside Windorah in south-west Queensland, has been in his family since 1906.

Tonight Kidd (his real name is James but nobody, including him, uses it) is checking the progress of rains through the creeks and gullies that snake through the property, which spans 500 sq km in Queensland’s outback channel country.

This vast expanse is part of one of the planet’s last remaining pristine desert river systems. Twenty years ago locals campaigned to keep cotton irrigators out.

Now there are fears of a much more powerful threat. Energy companies are eyeing the channel country’s gas, locked several kilometres down, with government reports saying it would need hydraulic fracturing to liberate the fossil fuel.

Kidd’s clattering Toyota darts left and right over dry gullies, between bemused cattle and a flat landscape. There appears to be no pattern to Kidd’s driving but he knows exactly where to find the water.

Seven Mile Channel drops into view, running strong. At the water’s muddy edge, spiders and ants flood out from cracks in the dirt and escape up coolabah trees. Round a sandhill, Kidd finds the front of another channel creeping forward, bubbling and fizzing between the cracks.

We are now on the Cooper Creek floodplain. In a flood, the creek can reach more than 60km wide as the Cooper reaches the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre basin, filling the lake and ushering in an explosion of wildlife.

Back near the bitumen, Kidd nods to a flat section with a line of trees in the distance. “That’s the bit, there,” he says, pointing.

This corner of Kidd’s property is overlapped by one of 10 applications that the gas company Origin Energy has made to the Queensland government to drill for fossil fuels across 225,000 hectares of the channel country.

A federal government-backed program to look at where and how deep the gas is, and the risks of exploiting it, says the fossil fuels in the Cooper basin are more than 2km down and would need unconventional methods to liberate them.

The drills would need to travel through the much shallower Great Artesian basin – the vast underground water source that pastoralists discovered as a way to give water to stock, as well as giving more than 100 towns a water supply.

Kidd’s view on the risks from gas exploration is nuanced.

He’s not worried about the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels like gas because he says climate change is not caused by humans. He is “no greenie” and think most environmentalists “wouldn’t know if their arse was on fire”.

But with all that qualification, he says his main concern – a big one – would be any interference that gas drilling had with the water.

“Don’t tamper with the rivers,” he says. “It’s too bloody fragile.”

From the air, the channel country’s creeks and rivers weave braid-like patterns across the landscape. The basin is not dammed or regulated. Cattle and sheep properties are fenced but the waters run through them.

Angus Emmott is part-grazier, part-naturalist, part-wildlife carer, part-photographer. He calls the channel country “the living heart of Australia”.

His library at Noonbah station – the grazing property that has been connected to his family for more than a century and where he hosts scientists and tourists – is a dusty assault of reference books and drawers of labelled insect specimens.

One drawer of cicadas, all collected by Emmott, includes several he won’t find in any of the reference books in his library because they’re undescribed by science.

What you will find in reference books are nine species – including birds, spiders, plants and lizards – named after either Angus, his wife, Karen, or their daughter, Amelia.

When we met, Emmott was planning a trip to Brisbane to speak to state government ministers in early May. He has sat on many advisory groups for the Lake Eyre basin over the years and he’s worried.

The Queensland government has promised to consult on a new framework to manage and protect the channel country. A high-water mark for protection came in 2005 when a state Labor government introduced the wild rivers legislation that protected the area. Those laws were repealed in 2014.

Emmott says the Labor government has been dragging its feet after promising to reinstate protections for the region. The government also hasn’t made a decision on Origin’s petroleum applications which, if granted, would allow the company to start producing gas.

He says he would be “horrified” if ministers gave the green light to drilling which, he says, would industrialise a “unique part of the world”.

He wants a future centred on ecotourism and sustainable and organic beef production, rather than gas drilling that would liberate more fossil fuels.

“Preventing ecosystem collapse makes us humans sustainable,” he says. “The way we’re going at the moment, we’re going to crash and burn.”

Between Noonbah and Windorah is the tiny town of Jundah, with a population of less than 100 and falling. In November Origin Energy carried out exploratory work on a property just outside town.

The Barcoo shire mayor, Sally O’Neil, says Jundah was “buzzing” when the workers were in town. In a town where the pub doesn’t always open and the council has to run the filling station, residents glimpsed a potential economic future in the hi-vis vests buying fuel and coffee. Nobody raised any concerns, she says.

In the modernised filling station, there are nods of enthusiasm from behind the counter about the prospects of a gas company drilling nearby.

Origin told Guardian Australia that the work it was doing in the Jundah area “relates to different activity for which we hold exploration permits and have agreements with landowners to carry out this work.”

“Providing opportunities for local business and the community is something [we] strive to achieve in all of our projects,” a statement said. The purchase of local goods and services for the exploratory work in November is an example of putting that into practice.”

But some 100km away from Jundah in Windorah’s main street, Josh Gorringe is about to close up for the day at the Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation, where he is the general manager.

The applications from Origin Energy were with the Queensland government in July 2020. Gorringe says his group didn’t find out until February 2021 – a few weeks after a story appeared in Guardian Australia.

The energy company challenges this version of events, saying it had been in contact with a legal representative at the corporation since November, but that representation had since changed. “We’re looking forward to meeting with them as soon as arrangements can be finalised,” an Origin statement said.

The Mithaka are among 13 traditional owner groups across the Lake Eyre basin. Mithaka have native title granted across a large area of the channel country and are custodians for an even larger area.

A Mithaka elder, George Gorringe, says on such a flat landscape any infrastructure can interfere with the flow of water many kilometres downstream, starving vegetation and ecosystems.

“The country survives on that water,” the 73-year-old says.

George’s father was a cattle drover and, as a child, he also had a spell moving cattle. Stock routes tended to follow the Aboriginal trade routes that followed the bigger rivers, he says.

Culturally, George Gorringe says, there is even more at stake if roads, pipelines and drills interfered with the rivers and creeks.

“All the storylines follow the rivers and the big creeks,” he says. “If it wrecks that, it puts a hole in all the storylines. We have six different songlines. It breaks that up.”

Several federal government agencies and departments are in the middle of a wide-ranging $35m program to work out what fossil fuels could be under the ground in three regions, one of which is the Cooper basin.

Cooper Creek has a “long and enduring cultural significance”, says one of several long, technical and dense reports produced through a “bioregional assessment” being carried out by CSIRO, Geoscience Australia, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, and the Bureau of Meteorology.

The Cooper region has eight nationally important wetlands and 26 threatened species, one report says.

Some areas of the basin have been producing oil and gas since the 1970s, using conventional drilling. But the region also has the “potential to produce significant amounts of shale, tight and deep coal gas” in the coming years. Just how much gas could be locked away in unconventional reserves isn’t known publicly.

These types of gas are known as “unconventional” because they’re harder to get to and often need hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – to liberate the gas from the rocks.

Elsewhere in Australia, the report says the energy industry has used 116 different chemicals when drilling for unconventional gas. Some 33 are of “potential high concern” and 41 are of “potential concern”, according to a government report on the Cooper basin.

A consultant’s report commissioned by the government but initially suppressed said unconventional gas exploration should not be allowed in the floodplains and wetland areas, identifying a slew of potential impacts.

Wells could fail because of “induced seismicity”; infrastructure like roads and pipelines could cut off water from wetlands; subsidence could change the flow of the channels; and accidental releases of chemicals could contaminate waterways.

Origin said there were existing regulations in Queensland that had to be met before any development application was made in places like the channel country that had special designation for their environmental significance. That included protecting groundwater and watercourses.

A statement from the Queensland Department of Resources said Origin’s applications were under consideration with “no prescribed timeframe” for making decisions, but the company would also need to gain an environmental authority before going ahead with works.

A Department of Environment and Science statement said consultation to ensure “sustainable management of the Lake Eyre basin” had been postponed in February 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic but would restart soon.

The statement said ongoing studies being led by CSIRO and other agencies into the Cooper basin would be followed by consultation into a “regulatory impact statement” – a process that includes a cost-benefit analysis of any proposed regulations.

It’s dawn at Ann and Bruce Rayment’s property at Connemara – the biggest block of three the Rayments own west of Jundah.

There are only about 100 cattle left to bring in on a bright morning a few days after rain. Ann is in a buggy, Bruce is on a motorbike and one of their sons, Clint, is piloting a helicopter to usher the cows along a fence line, up a road, through a creek and into a yard where Bruce and a few other hands divide the cattle up.

By 10am the whole crew are in the long narrow kitchen at the front of the house, mustering cake, sandwiches and cups of tea.

Ann has heard about the energy companies eyeing up parts of the channel country.

“You’ve got to make a living but we’re here for more than that,” she says. “We’re here for the way of life. It’s about the land … you look after the land because it’s in your best interests.

“It’s God’s own country. It keeps coming back to the fact that no amount of money will be able to undo what potentially could happen.”

She’s not begrudging of anyone else’s views but she’s personally worried about the effects drilling could have on the water above and below ground, and the potential for soils to be contaminated and weeds to be spread.

The threat from drilling is not high on people’s agenda, she says, but the few other locals she has spoken to felt that whatever happened the energy companies “will come in and do it anyway”.

“I think mining companies are very much ‘divide and conquer’,” she says. “They will do deals with other people before a community can come together.”

Ann says she doesn’t want to find herself looking back in 10 or 20 years and wondering “if only” she had voiced her worries about gas drilling.

A printed sheet carefully lays out her concerns. The Rayments are worried the drilling could interfere with the flow of water through the channels and compromise the groundwater.

“Water is your truest form of truth,” she says. “You live for now. I would like to be proactive in keeping [the land] the way it is.”

In a statement, Origin said it was “early days” and, while any new activity could “seem concerning”, it would look forward to engaging with graziers, traditional owners and ecologists “should our application be successful”.

The statement added: “Should we be granted tenure, we would put in place regulated management plans, procedures and controls to protect both the environment and areas of cultural significance.”

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