Recent announcements by the Queensland Government indicate potential changes to Wild Rivers legislation which could open up new unconventional gas and agriculture development opportunities in western Queensland and the Cape York. Whilst there is currently no draft bill to repeal or amend the Wild Rivers Act 2005, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines has been reviewing existing wild rivers declarations, in particular for the Lake Eyre Basin and Cape York. The draft Cape York Regional Plan intends to replace the wild river declarations over the Wenlock, Stewart, Archer and Lockhart River basins and alternative approaches are currently underway to replace wild river declarations affecting the Channel Country, namely Cooper Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina rivers which flow on to Lake Eyre.

How does the Wild Rivers Act work?

The Wild Rivers Act applies to designated rivers which retain all or almost all, of the natural values intact. These rivers are afforded a higher level of protection by limiting new developments within the designated wild river area.
 
Wild river declarations are statutory documents under the Wild Rivers Act. The declarations set out the extent of the declared wild river areas, any restrictions on natural resources (e.g. water) that can be taken in the declared wild river area, applicable rules or limits on development activities and any development assessment codes that must be applied.
 
What we know
 
This shift follows the recent release of the Western Rivers Advisory Panel Report ("WRAP") which has made a number of key recommendations for the oil & gas sector including:
  • the adoption of a risk based approach for the management of oil & gas activities i.e. by reference to the scale of activity;
  • that natural flows must not be impacted by oil & gas operations;
  • oil & gas development requirements must include no pollution of the river systems and no contamination of the groundwater systems; and
  • coal seam gas water monitoring requirements must be standardised and transparent.

The Hon Minister for Natural Resources & Mines Qld, Mr Andrew Cripps has indicated that although specific areas of the Channel Country may now be more available for the agriculture sector and for oil, coal seam gas and shale gas extraction, the river systems will be provided with more protection as a greater area of the riverine channels will be declared Channel Country Protection Area "no-go" zones than currently provided for under Wild Rivers legislation.

The aim of the developing management framework is to replace restrictions on development in Wild Rivers legislation with an alternative strategy to strike a balance between sustainable economic development and the protection of the environment for the Channel Country. The framework proposed by Hon Minister Cripps will rule out all open cut mining in the region and more specifically, there will be no cotton growing within the Cooper Creek area. Additionally, it is thought water extraction will be capped to prevent further water being released from these river systems for irrigation purposes. Any oil & gas development occurring within this region is likely to be strictly controlled under strengthened provisions in the Environmental Protection Act 1994.

What we don't know
 
As some details of the new framework are yet to be finalised, it is still unknown what areas will be protected and what further legislative change will be made to progress the recommendations under the WRAP report.
 
Watch this space
 
This policy shift is a preliminary marker towards the Government's desire to strike a balance between mining, agriculture and the environment. While the Hon Minister Cripps intends to finalise his recommendations to the Government for the Lake Eyre Basin within the next six months, the implementation of the alternative strategies is anticipated to occur late this year or early next year. The draft Cape York Regional Plan will be released for public consultation later this year by the Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning.