The Queensland government has quietly approved applications from energy company Origin that could lead to the extraction of fossil fuels across 225,000 hectares of Queensland’s channel country – part of one of the world’s last major free-flowing desert river systems.
Environmentalists and traditional owners said drilling in the fragile environment would threaten rivers, unique wildlife and could compromise the region’s organic beef industry. There are fears that the controversial technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could also be used.
The Queensland government said Origin would now need to gain environmental approvals before it could begin any exploration works. The company said the project was in its “early days”.
The Guardian revealed in January Origin had submitted petroleum applications in 10 areas across the channel country – part of the vast Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre basin.
Angus Emmott, a channel country grazier and naturalist, said the granting of the leases was “totally unacceptable” and the state government had promised at the last three elections to protect the region.
“Now they’ve gone and done this. These are the last free-flowing desert rivers on the face of the earth and we need governments with the guts to protect them.”
Environment groups believe Origin is targeting shale oil from the region, but the company says until exploration starts it will not know what kind of fossil fuels are there.
Ellie Smith, of environment group Lock the Gate Alliance, said there had not been meaningful consultation with the community before the leases were granted.
She said: “Communities who rely on the free-flowing desert rivers of the region will suffer tremendously if Origin Energy now builds industrial-scale, polluting shale oilfields.
“Exploiting this unique and spectacular part of Queensland for shale oil will also release a carbon bomb at a time when the world desperately needs to rein in its addiction to fossil fuels to mitigate the climate crisis.”
Riley Rocco, a spokesperson for the Western Rivers Alliance, a group of conservationists, graziers and traditional owners, said they were “deeply concerned” and feared Origin would use controversial hydraulic fracturing techniques.
Rocco said the government had committed to consulting with traditional owners and stakeholders “to ensure this world renowned river and wetland system is protected”.
“The Lake Eyre basin rivers and wetlands are rich in wildlife and cultural heritage,” Rocco said. “The channel country’s profitable organic beef industry relies on the floodplains being naturally irrigated from unhindered clean water flows. To allow new oil and gas mining here is to put the local community and wildlife at risk.”
Traditional owners are worried about the potential impact of drilling, pipelines and infrastructure on waterways and that this could also interfere with traditional songlines that are based on the routes of the rivers.
Karen Monaghan, a Wangkangurru Yarluyandi traditional owner and member of Lake Eyre Basin Traditional Owners Alliance, said: “The channel country is my mother’s Country.
“I grew up swimming in these rivers and I don’t want them fracked for oil or gas, dried out or dammed.”
A statement from Origin Energy said no work had been carried out on any of the petroleum leases.
“It’s very early days with regards to any proposed exploration activity in these permit areas,” a spokesperson said.
“The nature of exploration is to firstly determine what resources are in that particular area and whether they are recoverable.
“As is the case with all our operations, we would put in place approved management plans, procedures and controls to protect the environment and waterways, as well as areas of cultural significance.”
A statement from the Queensland Department of Resources said: “Any resources project must stack up environmentally, socially and financially and are assessed against strict criteria.”
Origin Energy must be granted an environmental authority before it could carry out exploration works, the statement said.
The department said traditional owners that held a native title claim were notified and consented prior to the approval of the petroleum leases.
An independent report commissioned in 2019 by the Queensland government, but not made public until last year, called for a ban on unconventional gas exploration in the region.
The report, which was leaked and later tabled in parliament, recommended gas wells and ponds be excluded from areas which frequently flood, and unconventional petroleum and gas production should be designated “unacceptable use” in an area that overlaps with some of the Origin lease applications.
The Guardian has approached the state’s environment department for comment.