A plan by mining giant Glencore to inject wastewater into the Great Artesian Basin has been described as “pure stupidity” by graziers and communities that rely on the basin for water.

There are fears that injecting any substance into the basin could contaminate the water supply and impact water pressure across the basin, which supplies more than 180,000 people across inland Australia.

Graziers say that after 35 years of work to protect and restore it, accepting Glencore’s proposal would be taking the basin backwards. 

What is the Great Artesian Basin?

Before the 1980s, more than 1,000 bores flowed freely into drains, wasting thousands of megalitres a year.(Supplied: DRDMW)

It is one of the largest underground freshwater reservoirs in the world, stretching south from Cape York in Queensland to Dubbo in New South Wales, west to Coober Pedy in South Australia and into the Northern Territory.

It’s estimated there are about 65 million gigalitres of underground water in the basin — enough to fill Sydney Harbour 130,000 times.

Water emerges from the basin from cracks in the rocks and aquifers, which flow into springs, creeks and rivers.

It lies under more than 1.7 million square kilometres of inland Australia, with about 70 per cent beneath Queensland.

For more than 60,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have relied on basin water to live in dry inland areas, and its springs and rivers hold important cultural significance to First Nations people.

The first bores built were in Bourke in 1878, Barcaldine in 1886 and Cunnamulla in 1887.(Supplied: State Library of Qld)

In 1878, European settlers built a shallow bore near Bourke, which produced flowing water and heralded a new era of water supply.

By 1899, it’s believed more than 500 bores had been sunk, and by 1960 there were more than 3,000 free-flowing bores across Queensland alone.

Now, it’s one of the most significant artesian basins in the world, generating economic benefits of around $13 billion each year and supplying water to 120 towns.

The basin supplies water to 180,000 people and 7,600 businesses across Australia.(Supplied: DCCEEW)

But with so many bores, pressure and volume in the Great Artesian Basin dropped and so began the project to cap and pipe all the free-flowing bores across the basin.

There are a number of restrictions that come with drilling bores in order to protect the basin and to ensure the water is viable for human consumption.

It’s a project that is still ongoing, but it started with one western Queensland grazier.

Making the most of the basin

In 1988, John Seccombe’s Muttaburra property Kenya was in drought and the grazier was having issues accessing water.

He had a number of shallow bores but knew there was a better way to ensure permanent access to water across his property; after some experimentation he put in a new artesian bore.

John Seccombe revolutionised the way graziers access water from artesian bores.(Supplied: John Seccombe)

“Ninety-five per cent of water that came out of a free-flowing bore was totally wasted and that led to a loss of pressure in the basin,” Mr Seccombe said.

“I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t utilise the pressure in the basin to pipe water around the property.”

And that’s what he did, laying pipes across his property and sending the water to parts of the land he’d never been able to before.

Mr Seccombe was the first to do this.

Word spread about this method — he said the Queensland government was initially dubious — but by 1993 it was convinced and asked him to run pilot programs helping other graziers cap and pipe their bores.

By 1996 Mr Seccombe helped design a national program that brought the four relevant states and territories together.

Thousands of kilometres of piping was installed to move water around Kenya Station.(Supplied: John Seccombe)

Mr Seccombe chaired both the federal and Queensland bodies until he retired in 2003.

The Queensland scheme is the Great Artesian Basin Rehabilitation Program, which receives joint funding in order to continue capping and piping bores across the basin.

The state government says it saves 226,000 megalitres of water every year, equivalent to 90,000 Olympic pools’ worth of water.

The joint funding for this program is set to expire in June, but Hamish Butler, executive director south region at the Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water, says he is confident it will be continued.

“The works have helped stabilise groundwater pressures, which has benefited landholders, town water supplies and industries,” Mr Butler said.

Despite the uncertainty of continued funding, there are hundreds of bores to be rehabilitated.

“That’s going to save another 76,000 megalitres of water annually,” Mr Butler said.

Federally, the Great Artesian Basin and Other Regional Aquifers Water Plan requires states to have all stock and domestic bores watertight by September 2, 2032.

What are Glencore’s plans?

The proposed CTSco storage site near Moonie in southern Queensland.(Supplied: CTSco)

Glencore’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) proposal seeks to inject and store 330,000 tonnes of food-grade carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power station into a deep aquifer of the basin which it says already contains “brackish water that is unfit for human consumption”.

The mining company maintains it is completely safe and there is no risk to the water supply, but the plan has greatly concerned the agricultural industry and communities across the Great Artesian Basin.

In January 2022 the plan was referred to the federal government under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to determine whether the project was considered a “controlled action”.

One month later the federal government notified Glencore that it did not consider the project a controlled action and required no further assessment or approval on a federal level.

The company then had to submit an environmental impact statement (EIS) to the Queensland government, which is still being considered.

This week, the government confirmed it received an amended EIS from Glencore’s Carbon Transport and Storage Corporation (CTSCo) and said the final decision was due in May.

CTSCo aims to be injecting wastewater into the basin by 2026.(Supplied: Glencore)

As part of the EIS, CTSCo did its own research into the potential impacts on the basin and the company said it was “very confident” the project would have no impact.

“We have conducted extensive geological and environmental studies to assess potential impacts to the environment, including local water sources and aquifers,” a Glencore spokesperson said.

“Over the past three years CTSCo has conducted scientific assessments and concluded that the impacts of the project are local and minor, with no impact to existing or future Great Artesian Basin groundwater users.

“This view is shared by the Australian government Independent Expert Scientific Committee.”

However, the project has drawn criticism for not engaging an independent researcher, among other things.

The company has confirmed more than 80 submissions have been received, with most raising concerns over groundwater supply.

In response, Glencore says its research has been peer reviewed by institutions such as the CSIRO, the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.

Queensland’s Department of Environment, Science and Innovation is responsible for approving or denying the CTSCo environmental impact statement.

A spokesperson for the department told the ABC there were strict regulatory requirements associated with the assessment of CCS projects in Queensland.

“A rigorous assessment is being undertaken as part of the EIS process and will address any environmental concerns associated with the project, including consideration of potential impacts to groundwater and the Great Artesian Basin.”

If the EIS is approved in May, Glencore aims to begin injecting CO2 into the basin by 2026.

Vital water source

About 120 towns across the Great Artesian Basin rely partly or solely on the basin for their water supply.

In far western Queensland, the Diamantina Shire stretches across 900,000 hectares and all residents totally rely on the GAB for drinking water.

Councillor and former mayor Robbie Dare said any threat to the shire’s water would be devastating for the community.

“We need every litre of water in that basin … we can’t afford to waste any of have any of it contaminated,” Cr Dare said.

“We just can’t take that risk. We’ve done all that good work and we want to keep doing good work.”

In neighbouring Boulia Shire, grazier Jack Neilson echoes Cr Dare’s sentiments.

“It really is the lifeblood of much of western Queensland,” Mr Neilson said.

“We haven’t got one permanent water hole on our little 110,000 acres … we are fully reliant on the sub-artesian water.”

Mr Neilson has 14 bores that are capped and piped across the property to ensure his home and 2,000 head of cattle have permanent access to water.

Graziers like Mr Neilson, as well as local councils, lobby groups and inland communities, are asking the state government to stop the Glencore project.

Jack Neilson has 14 bores across his Boulia property Two Rivers.(Supplied: Jack Neilson)

“We can’t undo this once we start going down this road,” Mr Neilson said.

“If something happens in that water, there’s not enough capacity outside the artesian basin to supply these towns.

“If the water goes, the towns go … it would essentially wipe them off the map.

“I think it’s just pure stupidity.”

So what is the risk?

According to Geoscience Australia, there is none.

It has backed Glencore’s claims that the CTSCo project is safe, saying “carbon capture and storage is a well-established technology that has been in operation globally since the early 1970s”.

According to the federal department, there are 30 active commercial CCS facilities worldwide (one operating in Australia) and none have reported incidents of CO2 moving outside the target storage complex.

In a statement to the ABC, Geoscience Australia said it was unlikely there would be any impacts on the groundwater from the Great Artesian Basin.

A three-dimensional slice through the GAB and its underlying older sedimentary basins.(Supplied: Geoscience Australia)

“Due to the basin’s immense size and the geology/hydrology of the area identified for the injection, this CO2 storage project will not threaten the viability of groundwater in the Great Artesian Basin,” the statement said.

But communities are not convinced, and many remain concerned about the potential impacts the plan could have on the water within the basin.

“I’m worried they’re saying it [wastewater] won’t get out,” Cr Robbie Dare said.

“But how can they prove that?” 

AgForce seeking federal review

In an effort to stop the CTSCo project, Queensland farming body AgForce launched legal action against the federal government in March.

The lobby group is seeking a judicial review of the government’s 2022 decision which determined the Glencore proposal did not need federal approval.

In a statement, AgForce chief executive Michael Guerin said launching legal action was a last resort.

AgForce launched legal action after the Commonwealth said the project didn’t require federal approval.(Supplied: AgForce)

“We are very confident in our case,” Mr Guerin said.

“We will not rest until this thing is sorted out and resolved in the correct way.

“We want to see the Great Artesian Basin protected in the same ways we look to protect the Great Barrier Reef or Sydney Harbour. 

“We are not pumping industrial waste into a pristine water resource.”

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