On 2 July 2013, the Queensland Government released a report (Report) prepared by the Western Rivers Advisory Panel (WRAP) dealing with the future management of Georgina, Diamantina and Cooper Creek catchments. The WRAP was appointed by Minister Andrew Cripps in 2012 and represents a significant cross-section of the community, consisting of eleven members including representatives from AgForce, local government, the Georgina-Diamantina-Cooper Aboriginal Group and the resources sector.

The Report provides recommendations regarding the future treatment of mining and petroleum exploration and production in the Western Rivers region and looks at the areas which the community would like to see protected in an “alternative strategy”. In this regard, the Report highlights the fact that river protection is considered the primary issue by the majority of the WRAP, as opposed to further mining.

The release of the Report was prompted by the Liberal National Party’s 2012 election promise to examine alternative strategies to protect the area. This followed on from significant criticism of the Wild Rivers Act 2005 due its complexity and failure to recognise ecologically sustainable development.

Recommendations

The three key areas that were considered by the WRAP related to large scale mining, unconventional and conventional petroleum and gas and small scale irrigation.

The Report presents seven key recommendations, including:

  • Mining should be prohibited in floodplains, major rivers, major tributaries and lakes;
  • Open cut mining should be prohibited in “key sensitive areas” with stronger requirements applicable to other areas;
  • The State Coordinator-General should not have powers to override any alternative strategies for the protection of the natural assets and values of the Lake Eyre Basin.
  • The Great Artesian Basin recharge areas should be protected from the cumulative effects of mining;
  • Mining activity should not be authorised if it has the potential to reduce or interfere with natural flows;
  • Mining requirements must include no interference of flows to major rivers, major tributaries and floodplains; and
  • The use of a “risk based approach” instead of the current “adaptive management approach” being used to manage petroleum and gas operations.

Varied Opinions

WRAP members agreed that the regulation of mining in the Lake Eyre Basin should be rigorous and transparent. However, there were varied opinions regarding what should be done to improve the current legislation. In particular, representatives for the resources sector were strongly opposed to many of the suggested recommendations.

Broadly speaking, the resources sector argued that there is no evidence to suggest that the Water Act 2000 and the Environmental Protection Act 1994 are deficient and consequently, new legislation requiring further protection is unnecessary. In contrast to this view, some conservationists argued that any winding back of protection under new legislation will result in opening up too much of the area to mining and resource extraction.

A large proportion of WRAP members supported the introduction of a moratorium on petroleum and gas development in circumstances where there is an insufficient understanding of industry impact, as well as a recommendation to enforce a minimum two kilometre buffer zone around rivers and floodplains. These recommendations were also opposed by the resources sector.

Conclusion

The strategy of the Government moving forward has not been announced. However, the WRAP recommended that the Government consider either introducing an amendment to the Water Act 2000 or the Environmental Protection Act 1994 or alternatively, drafting a new law complementary to and consistent with the Lake Eyre Basin Agreement.

The Minister is currently considering the Report’s recommendations and is seeking to develop an alternative strategy for protecting and sustainably managing the Western Rivers region. Any legislative changes will have the potential to significantly affect current or planned mining or petroleum activities within the catchments and will be monitored closely in the coming months.