|dc.description.abstract||The sustainable governance of groundwater is of the utmost importance in an arid country like Australia. Groundwater is relied on by our agricultural and pastoral communities. Groundwater is also a significant issue in mining, oil and gas extraction and energy production. Recent conflicts between pre-existing pastoral and agricultural groundwater users and more recently introduced coal seam gas (CSG) industry in Australia highlight the difficulties in governing our groundwater resources. These are not simple concerns either. Debate over how to manage the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) resources, which underly most of Queensland, has been simmering for over a century and despite our best efforts, key GAB aquifers continue to display declines. In one way or another, the sustainability of groundwater is important for Australia, and particularly for the whole of the Queensland economy.
A relatively unknown process in Queensland called Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR), or aquifer injection, has been recently adopted by the CSG industry in the Surat Cumulative Management Area (CMA), Queensland, to replace potable groundwater in GAB resources. CSG produced (or associated) water is produced along with the CSG. Aquifer injection using CSG produced water is a process that can therefore assist in the sustainable management of groundwater resources. Identification of any regulatory mechanisms that enable safe aquifer injection in the CSG context, could assist with respect to conflicts between the different groundwater users, but could also contribute to the sustainable governance of groundwater resources generally. A comparison between the regulatory frameworks for aquifer injection using CSG produced water and associated outcomes in the Surat CMA, Queensland, and the Powder River Basin (PRB), Wyoming, provides the opportunity to determine whether regulatory initiatives can enable positive outcomes for valuable groundwater resources. Answering this question will have relevance for the CSG industry (and other extractive industries). It will also be relevant for agriculture, pastoralists and rural communities and the wider community that understands that our precious groundwater resources demand our care and attention.
Based on a broad literature review of common pool resource (CPR) theory, adaptive management, and scholarship involving MAR, I develop a detailed set of design principles, termed the ‘Aquifer Injection and Augmentation design principles’ (AIA design principles). These are based on Ostrom’s1 design principles for CPRs and are illustrated using a heat map. Green, amber or red colours depict whether the specific AIA design principle is present, somewhat present or absent. My analysis is based on document analysis (of more than 303 permits, licences, environmental authorities and supporting documents), and quantitative and qualitative data (semi-structured interviews with 33 participants and 39 relevant public submissions) in respect of two case study jurisdictions: the Surat CMA, Queensland and the PRB, Wyoming. This enables jurisdiction specific evaluations against the AIA design principles and the production of corresponding heat maps which are compared to the empirical outcomes for the governance arrangements. The empirical outcomes considered include the physical outcomes for aquifer injection of CSG produced water in each jurisdiction, such as the quantum of water reinjected and any issues involving groundwater quality. Additionally considered empirical outcomes also include the rate of uptake for the process as well as the existence of any documented conflict and lack of trust for the process or around groundwater governance generally.
My key findings relate to both the governance of groundwater and aquifer injection of CSG produced water. I demonstrate that the presence (or absence) of the AIA design principles correlate with findings of relative success in terms of sustainability of the governance of the groundwater system, extraction of CSG produced water and injection. In addition, transparency of reliable information, such as decisions and reports that involve the groundwater resource and upon which the regulators base decisions, appear to enable sustainable groundwater governance, and aquifer injection of CSG produced water. I also demonstrate that adaptive management can assist in reducing uncertainty and thereby enable aquifer injection using CSG produced water, but a lack of transparency around decision making can limit the effectiveness of an adaptive approach.
Specifically, for the governance of the injection activity, a lack of clear and transparent rules (such as a permit) for the injection process, a lack of rules that consider local geographic (and social) factors and fragmentation between government agencies appear to be impediments to the effective governance of this activity. The role of an ability for relevant stakeholders to participate in rulemaking, and their rights to organise themselves in terms of rulemaking is unclear, particularly where monitoring and sanctions for rule breaking are present. Moreover, unquantified economic benefits of injection appear to be relevant, but further economic analysis of this issue is necessary. These findings highlight weaknesses and strengths of the current governance frameworks around groundwater and aquifer injection in the Surat CMA, Queensland and PRB, Wyoming.
I recommend three initiatives for the governance of groundwater and specifically, aquifer injection of CSG produced water. First, a commitment to transparency of reliable information is paramount. Once transparency is embedded, my second proposed initiative is the adoption of a broad and inclusive adaptive management approach which can enable sustainable outcomes. My third recommendation is to adopt broadly inclusive and transparent deliberative participation on regulatory reforms for the Surat CMA relating to groundwater generally, the extraction of CSG produced water, and injection. This deliberation will assist in transforming current governance arrangements to enable sustainable outcomes in that jurisdiction where the CSG industry (and other extractive resources impacting groundwater) are expanding.
With increasingly boom and bust cycles involving surface water hydrology, groundwater is an extremely important buffer for water security. Sustainable development of groundwater will be even more critical for our health, wellbeing and survival in the future. Initiatives that deliver sustainable outcomes for our precious groundwater resources are therefore acutely necessary.||