How listening to the community is helping to safeguard the environment

By Ruth DawkinsDecember 15th, 2021

We're helping to support informed decision making when it comes to safeguarding environmental values in the Beetaloo and Cooper geological basins.

The Beetaloo and Cooper geological basins in Australia’s centre contain unique water-related and environmental features. These areas are also highly prospective for gas.

To help decision makers assess future development proposals, to better understand where to look more closely and where risks are of low concern, the Australian Government brought in science.

In a recently completed study of the two areas, Australia’s national science agency CSIRO worked alongside partners Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology, and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) to deliver independent scientific assessments that provide a detailed look into the potential impacts from unconventional gas resource development and explore ways to mitigate these impacts.

The green and lush Mataranka Thermal Pools, Beetaloo Geological and Bioregional Assessment region, October 2018.

Dr Kate Holland, CSIRO’s Project Leader for the Geological and Bioregional Assessment (GBA) Program believes a major success of the $35 million project was in adopting a user-centred approach from start to finish. This enabled researchers to untangle the complex connections between what matters in the environment and the development activities that could impact on those protected values.

“The outcomes of the 4-year program clearly demonstrate the value of collaboration between Australian science agencies and of listening to the people who live and work in the regions,” says Dr Holland.

In doing so, the project team has created a robust body of scientific evidence that will provide assurance about potential impacts on water and the environment associated with unconventional gas resources in the two basins and support informed decision making by regulators, industry, government and communities.

Seeking stakeholder engagement through user panels

“When you’re designing regional-scale programs of work it’s important to think about who is going to be using the science,” says Dr Justine Lacey, leader of CSIRO’s Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform. “Who is going to be looking at it and who is going to be trusting it?”

With this in mind, the GBA Program deliberately applied user-centred design principles to focus the science underpinning each assessment. In each of the assessed regions, a user panel was appointed to help inform the process, strengthen connections and understanding between researchers and communities, and build confidence and trust in the program design.

The panels comprised a broadly representative group of people – local landowners and water users, Indigenous groups and Traditional Owners, local government, state and federal agencies, NRM bodies, environmental regulators and industry representatives – that were embedded into the formal governance structure of the Program.

Dr Lacey believes the success of the panels emerged from bringing different stakeholders and their perspectives together. Rather than having to form a consensus about issues or reach decisions, the structure of the panels allowed all stakeholders to engage with the science and provide their advice to the program.

This meaningful early engagement enabled researchers to address the issues that were of most interest and importance to the people who live and work in the regions. These included impacts on groundwater from the use, handling and storage of chemicals and flowback waters; risks from compromised well integrity and hydraulic fracturing; potential impacts on the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer and Mataranka Thermal Pools in the Beetaloo; and the nature of surface water movement on Cooper Creek floodplain in the Cooper.

Cooper Creek in flood, 4 km east of Windorah, March 2018. Credit: Russell Crosbie (CSIRO).

“In the first set of interviews, we found three major themes,” says Dr Lacey. “They coalesced around understanding impacts on water, representing diverse perspectives at the table, and having an opportunity to inform government process. In the latter part of the Program, panel members also identified the value of independent, credible science, and the importance of developing assessments that were relevant to and informed by place.”

There is strong agreement among Program participants that using the input of panel members to shape the scientific assessments and ensure the assessments were fit for purpose at a regional scale was a successful approach. In the Cooper, it led to a decision to collect Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data and build a hydrodynamic flood inundation model to better understand the movement of surface water. In the Beetaloo it resulted in focused investigations on potential risks to groundwater systems in the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer.

The user-centred approach is one that CSIRO’s Director of Land and Water Jane Coram would like to see replicated in future.

“Through the user panels, our scientists have developed a better understanding of what matters in the regions and how science can address key knowledge gaps,” says Ms Coram. “This is really important in controversial issues like development of resources in regions. I think that’s a real first and it’s set a standard for future complex investigations into these difficult decision-making questions.”

Making scientific findings understandable and accessible

The GBA Program’s focus on user needs and priorities didn’t end with the design of the research.

To ensure that the information gathered by researchers was accessible to decision makers, the Program team developed a unique impact assessment method – a spatial causal network – to provide a systematic, robust and transparent evaluation of potential impacts in a region.

The method assesses risks at each step in a chain of events – called causal pathways – from the starting point of unconventional gas resource development activities through to the endpoint of protected environmental and water related values.

Evaluation of the likelihood, consequence and mitigation options for each causal pathway is presented in an innovative online tool called the GBA Explorer.

The GBA Explorer is an innovative online tool which presents information visually in a more accessible, flexible and interactive format than a conventional scientific paper or technical report. Users can systematically evaluate potential impacts in a region to better understand potential pathways to impact for environmental and water-related values, and ways to mitigate them.

GBA Explorer presents information visually in a more accessible, flexible and interactive format than a conventional scientific paper or technical report. Users can view the entire causal network, or select specific pathways and look only at what matters to them.

As an example, a user who was concerned about the persistence of an endangered species, such as the Gouldian Finch in the Beetaloo, could look at potential impacts from accidental release, from overland flow obstruction, from vegetation removal, or from all of those combined.

Because the Program has made the supporting information for the causal networks – including reports, journal papers, maps, data and fact sheets – available online, users can drill down and explore all the relevant evaluations and underpinning scientific evidence.

Dr Andrew Heap, Chief of the Minerals, Energy and Groundwater Division at Geoscience Australia, believes the development of the GBA Explorer is one of the highlights of the Program.

“One of the outstanding achievements of the Program has been the ability to successfully translate the key scientific findings and make them understandable and accessible to a broad cross-section of the community,” says Dr Heap. “This truly has been a landmark study that will strengthen environmental safeguards and provide the scientific evidence we need for informed decision making.”

In addition to the GBA Explorer, the Program developed a suite of other communications materials, including animations, a range of fact sheets and a plain English summary of the methodology, to help make the project outcomes accessible to a wide audience.

“It’s not an easy task for scientists to communicate two years of work in a two-page fact sheet with a couple of pictures,” says Dr Holland. “It’s really challenging. But hopefully we’ve delivered something that our audience can read and understand, that gives them an entry point to go and look deeper into the datasets and other reports.”

Real world impact going forward

A male Gouldian finch
Source: Roger Smith/Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

For the researchers who were involved in the GBA Program, it’s deeply rewarding to know that their work is already being used across industry and government.

The data gathered during the project is proving valuable in several areas. LiDAR datasets collected across the Cooper Creek floodplain, Thompson and Barcoo river systems are now being downloaded by farmers, local councils and industry to better understand the floodplains of the Cooper. Field seismicity monitors installed in the Beetaloo were able to detect the recent earthquake in Victoria. The Northern Territory Government has been using GBA datasets to inform their ecological baseline requirements of the Strategic Regional Environmental and Baseline Assessment (SREBA).

Program findings are an important legacy. But equally important are the user-centred approaches that were developed through the Program. According to Mitchell Bouma, former Director for Geological and Bioregional Assessments at DAWE, there is potential for these approaches to be used in other programs.

“It has been very exciting to see some of the really fantastic work that the Program has completed,” says Mr Bouma. “We’ll be looking to leverage these methodologies and move forward with them to provide that level of trusted science that underpins regulatory decision making.”

That sentiment is echoed by Dr Cameron Huddlestone-Holmes, a Principal Research Scientist in CSIRO Energy who led the Beetaloo component of the GBA program.

“The GBA Explorer and the causal network method itself is very amenable to being extended. We can add in more information and even replicate it into other regions,” says Dr Huddlestone-Holmes. “This forms a very good basis for future work. The best way for us to have impact is to address community concerns by doing research in a way that matters to people. Without community engagement, our work becomes much less meaningful.”

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