Concerted pressure for a decision on the regulation of oil and gas activity in the Lake Eyre Basin region in Queensland has resulted in an announcement by their state government, which it says contains key changes that strike a good balance between preservation and industry development.
Coming on the last working day of the year, details were scant but a government media release said the changes will protect more areas in the region by better mapping the rivers and floodplains, and will maintain existing conventional production in them, but prevent future oil and gas production in those areas as well as ruling out unconventional gas extraction.
Other changes include "better recognising and conserving the special ecological features that make the region a global icon, such as braided channel networks and wildlife corridors, and unique species, and working with First Nations traditional custodians to ensure their country and cultural values were better protected, (so) that their priorities and aspirations are supported".
Labor governments have been promising to protect Channel Country rivers and floodplains at every election since 2015, and today's (December 22, 2023) announcement was hailed by numerous conservation groups.
Hannah Schuch, Queensland campaigns manager for the Wilderness Society described it as an early Christmas present, saying Mr Miles should be proud of the milestone, given he was Environment Minister in 2015 when the initial commitment was made.
Lock the Gate Alliance national coordinator Ellen Roberts said the Premier had shown the leadership to make the decision in his first week on the job.
"This announcement by the government puts in place the first official no-go zone for gas in Queensland outside of national parks. Lock the Gate Alliance hopes to see more of this, like the rich farmland of the Darling Downs," she said.
"Unconventional oil and gas extraction can require thousands of wells to be drilled across a landscape, with each well requiring millions of litres of water for a single frack.
"This sort of development would have decimated the fragile and unique rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country.
"It would have pushed out existing sustainable industries, and wreaked havoc on cultural sites."
As the changes will not be retrospective, existing approved conventional gas development can continue.
Holders of existing petroleum exploration tenures, including potential commercial areas within the rivers and floodplains, will be able to apply for a production lease until August 30, 2024.
Where an application has already been made, these will also continue to be considered under the existing requirements. However, unconventional oil and gas extraction will not be allowed.
Ms Roberts said the decision to allow petroleum companies to apply for production licences for new conventional oil and gas projects until the end of August next year was troubling.
"Lock the Gate will be intensely scrutinising any new production applications for oil and gas projects on the floodplains that are lodged before August next year, and we await the details from the government on how these applications will proceed."
Statement 'is vague'
Quilpie mayor Stuart Mackenzie has been one of the more vocal opponents of imposing harsher restrictions on resource development and said while the statement was vague, it appeared conventional oil and gas wouldn't be impacted, except in floodplains and rivers.
"It will be critical to understand the extent of what they're talking about," he said. "No-one was doing any unconventional extraction so nothing's changed there."
He took exception to a statement by the Premier that the changes would enhance the region's reputation for producing world renowned clean, green organic beef.
"The region's always had a clean, green image - existing gas exploration hasn't had any effect on that," he said.
According to Dalene Wray, the general manager of OBE Organic, the changes will provide security to local graziers and business owners "whose livelihoods depend on the healthy flow of the rivers across the floodplains".
She said the regulations would strike the right balance between protecting the rivers and floodplains while allowing industry to coexist outside of riverine areas.
Mithaka Elder George Gorringe, based at Windorah, said his Christmas wish had come true.
"I've seen the damage a single road can do to our country - cutting off water flows and choking the floodplains," he said.
"Opening the rivers and floodplains to unconventional oil and gas fields would be devastating for our country and our people.
"We want to grow economic opportunities for our people, but we also need to make sure that our rivers and our cultural heritage is protected.
"This decision achieves the right balance. Protecting the Channel Country from industrial mining opens new opportunities for us - we wish to invite people to experience this unique environment and learn about our rich cultural heritage."
The Queensland Resources Council says the proposed new regulations were unnecessary and threaten Queensland's future capacity to ensure Australia's domestic gas supply.
Chief executive Ian Macfarlane said it was unclear how the decision would impact the growth of Queensland's critical minerals sector, despite government assurances that it won't.
"Queensland already has strict environmental regulations in place to manage project applications and the industry has shown that it can work cooperatively in the Basin to maintain highest standards to protect the environment," he said.
"Resources projects that do not stack up environmentally do not progress further, which is how it should be.
""The resources sector has been engaging in good faith with the state government and other stakeholders, so it is extremely disappointing not to see a balanced outcome."
Mr Macfarlane said the announcement failed to consider the social and economic impact of blocking further expansion of Australia's gas reserves, saying reports this week indicated Australia's east coast was facing another gas shortage over the next few years and will rely on Queensland producers to ensure supply to millions of homes and businesses.
"Less supply means higher gas prices for Australians already struggling with cost-of-living pressures," he said.
"Unless governments are prepared to allow, and support, new gas projects to be developed, not only will energy prices continue to climb but southern states are going to run out of gas.
"This decision will only create more policy uncertainty for the resources sector and make it less likely that new investments will be made."
Mr Macfarlane said the decision to seriously restrict oil and gas extraction in the Lake Eyre Basin will have a profound impact on local communities like Quilpie, Longreach and Barcoo shires that rely heavily on the jobs, business opportunities and economic contributions provided by companies currently operating in the region.
"I sympathise with local mayors and businesses who were relying on a more balanced and evidence-based approach to supporting development in the region," he said.