The magnificent Lake Eyre Basin is threatened by 831 oil and gas wells – and more are planned. Is that what Australians really want?

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Monday, October 3, 2022

The heart-shaped Lake Eyre Basin covers about one-sixth of Australia. It contains one of the few remaining pristine river systems in the world. But new research shows oil and gas activity is extending its tentacles into these fragile environments. Its wells, pads, roads and dams threaten to change water flows and pollute this magnificent ecosystem. The study, by myself and colleague Amy Walburn, investigated current and future oil and gas production and exploration on the floodplains of the Lake Eyre Basin. We found 831 oil and gas wells across the basin – and this number is set to grow. What’s more, state and Commonwealth legislation has largely failed to control this development. State and national governments are promoting massive gas development to kickstart Australia’s economy. But as we show, this risks significant damage to the Lake Eyre Basin and its rivers. Mining infrastructure in the Lake Eyre Basin, here recently flooded, threatens the pristine natural wonder. Doug Gimesy A precious natural wonder The Lake Eyre Basin is probably the last major free-flowing river system on Earth – meaning no major dams or irrigation diversions stem the rivers’ flow. This country has been looked after for tens of thousands of year by First Nations people, including the Arrernte, Dieri, Mithaka and Wangkangurru. This care continues today. The biggest rivers feeding the basin – the Diamantina, Georgina and Cooper – originate in western Queensland and flow to South Australia where they pour into Kathi Thanda-Lake Eyre. As they wind south, the rivers dissect deserts and inundate floodplains, lakes and wetlands – including 33 wetlands of national importance. This natural phenomenon has happened for millennia. It supports incredible natural booms of plants, fish and birds, as well as tourism and livestock grazing. But our new research shows oil and gas development threatens this precious natural wonder. Read more: Unknown wonders: Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Massive industrial creep Our analysis used satellite imagery to map the locations of oil and gas development in the Lake Eyre Basin since the first oil wells were established in late 1950s. We found 831 oil and gas production and exploration wells exist on the floodplains of the Lake Eyre Basin – almost 99% of them on the Cooper Creek floodplains. The wells go under the river and its floodplains into the geological Cooper Basin, considered to have the most important onshore petroleum and natural gas deposits in Australia. Our research also shows how quickly oil and gas mining in the Lake Eyre Basin is set to grow. We identified licensing approvals or applications covering 4.5 million hectares of floodplains in the Lake Eyre Basin, across South Australia and Queensland. The CSIRO recently examined likely scenarios of 1,000 to 1,500 additional unconventional gas wells in the Cooper Basin in the next 50 years. It predicted these wells would built be on “pads” – areas occupied by mining equipment or facilities – about 4 kilometres apart. They would typically access gas using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Read more: Protecting Australia's Lake Eyre basin means getting our priorities right Fracking is the process of extracting so-called “unconventional gas”. It involves using water and chemicals to fracture deep rocks to extract the gas. This polluted water, known to be toxic to fish, is brought back to the surface and stored in dams. Two locations we focused on were in South Australia at the protected, Ramsar-listed Coongie Lakes site, which was recognised as internationally significant in 1987. The other site was in Queensland’s channel country, also on the Cooper floodplain. In total across the Coongie Lakes sites, we found a three-fold increase in wells: from 95 in 1987 to 296 last year. We also identified 869 kilometres of roads and 316 hectares of storage pits, such as those that hold water. Some of these dams could potentially hold polluted fracking water and become submerged by flooding, particularly at Coongie Lakes. A disaster waiting to happen? Examples from around the world already show oil and gas exploration and development can reduce water quality by interrupting sediments and leading to elevated chemical concentrations. Production waste can also degrade floodplain vegetation. The CSIRO says risks associated with oil and gas development in the Cooper Basin include: dust and emissions from machinery that may cause habitat loss, including changes to air quality, noise and light pollution disposal and storage of site materials that may contaminate soil, surface water and/or groundwater through accidental spills, leaks and leaching unplanned fracking and drilling into underground faults, unintended geological layers or abandoned wells gas and fluids contaminating soil, surface water, groundwater and air changes to groundwater pressures could potentially reactivate underground faults and induce earthquakes. Fracking for unconventional gas also requires drawing large amounts of water from rivers and groundwater. Read more: 1 in 5 fossil fuel projects overshoot their original estimations for emissions. Why are there such significant errors? The laws have failed Our findings raise significant questions for Australian governments and the community. Are we prepared to accept industrialisation of the Lake Eyre Basin, and the associated risk of pollution and other environmental damage? Have the companies involved earned a social licence for these activities? Where do the profits end up, and who will bear the social, environmental and financial costs of such intense development? Clearly, state and federal environmental protections have failed to stop unfettered development of the basin. These policies include the Lake Eyre Basin Agreement, signed by the states, the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory, which has been in place since 2000. Australia’s federal environment law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – is supposed to protect nationally important areas such as Ramsar wetlands. Yet our research identified that just eight developments in the basin were referred to the Commonwealth government for approval and with only one deemed significant enough for assessment. This legislation does not deal adequately with the cumulative impacts of development. And finally, gas extraction and production is associated with substantial “fugitive” emissions - greenhouse gases which escape into the atmosphere. This undermines Australia’s emissions reduction efforts under the Paris Agreement. The governments of South Australia and Queensland should restrict mining development in the Lake Eyre Basin. And stronger federal oversight of this nationally significant natural treasure is urgently needed. In response to this article, Chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, Samantha McCulloch, said in a statement: The oil and gas industry takes its responsibilities to the environment and to local communities seriously and it is one of the most heavily regulated sectors in Australia. The industry has been operating in Queensland for more than a decade and the gas produced in Queensland plays an important role in Australia’s energy security. Richard Kingsford received part funding for this work from The Pew Charitable Trusts as well as the Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Sydney. It was also written as part of an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant on Ramsar Sites. He also receives funding from state and Commonwealth governments, non-government organisations, including Bush Heritage Australia, the Ian Potter Foundation and Nari Nari Tribal Council. He is affiliated with the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania, Ecological Society of Australia and Birdlife Australia.

Lake Eyre Basin contains one of the few pristine river systems left in the world. But new research shows oil and gas activity is extending its tentacles into these fragile environments.

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In search of the principles of life

Associate Professor Otto Cordero is looking for the fundamental constraints that shape microbial ecosystems.

MIT Associate Professor Otto Cordero has always gravitated toward the most basic questions of life. How do ecosystems assemble? Why do species divide labor in nature? He believes these are some of the most central questions for understanding life. “The challenge is discovering something that applies across organisms and across environments — now we’re talking about a fundamental constraint of life,” says Cordero, who recently earned tenure in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “I really care about that type of thing. That’s where it ends for me. Why are things the way they are? Why do they look the way they do and function the way they do? It’s because there are constraints. It’s evolution. It’s how the world works. Discovering those principals is the ultimate prize.” Cordero’s search has led him into areas of research he never could have imagined. Along the way, he’s made progress toward understanding microbial ecosystems through the broad factors that dictate their composition and behavior. “I talk to a lot of physicists, and they all tell the same story,” Cordero says, smiling. “Many years ago, there were people looking at the molecules of a gas, trying to predict where each one will be, and then somebody at some point figured out there were master variables: pressure, volume, and temperature, and they all relate to each other very nicely. Now they have the gas law, and everything makes sense once you understand those variables. It’s unclear if master variables like that exist in biology, and even more so in microbial ecology, but it’s certainly worth looking for them.” Embracing chance Cordero was raised by his mother in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he says scientific activity was sparse. “I never met a scientist in my life,” Cordero says. “At my university in Ecuador, there was one teacher who had a PhD, and everybody called him doctor.” Although no one in Cordero’s family had gone to college, his mother prioritized his education, and Cordero gained an appreciation for reading and learning from his grandfather. Those influences led him to a technical college for his undergraduate degree. Cordero’s childhood was humble — there were days he had to borrow 25 cents just to catch a bus to campus. But a pivotal moment came when he received a scholarship to attend Utrecht University for graduate school in the Netherlands. “Everything is serendipitous,” Cordero says. “I tell my students when I look back, I could never have predicted where I’d be in three to five years.” Up to that point, Cordero hadn’t met many people outside of Ecuador, but he jokes that he met someone from every country in Europe within a week. He’d go on to make friends from around the world. While majoring in artificial intelligence as a master’s student, Cordero became interested in algorithms that described the organization of organisms like insects. One day he was searching through papers on the subject when a Dutch name caught his eye. It turned out to be a professor in the building next to him. He hurried over and met the professor, Paulien Hogeweg, who was studying fundamental questions of life using computational biology. Cordero fell in love with the subject, and Hogeweg would become his PhD advisor. Serendipity struck again when Cordero began his postdoctoral work at MIT, where he worked under longtime MIT professor Martin Polz, who is now a professor at the University of Vienna. “I ended up opening this area of research for myself that I never imagined before,” Cordero says. “I started to study microbial interactions — essentially how different strains or species of bacteria interact in the environment.” Through that work, Cordero uncovered mechanisms microbes use to work together or kill off competing species, which have major implications for microbial ecosystems and perhaps also large biogeochemical processes like the carbon cycle. “From there, I was an expert in microbial interactions and evolution,” Cordero says. “I was working on exciting projects, and when that happens at MIT the environment lifts you up. Everybody wants to talk to you about the next idea. It’s stimulating. I enjoy that very much. The dynamics and exposure here are unrivaled. I feel like I go to a talk and I know what the next big-impact paper is going to be.” Cordero joined the faculty at MIT in 2015, and he’s continued studying microbes to explore how biological systems function and evolve. In keeping with that mission, in 2017 Cordero helped assemble an interdisciplinary group of researchers from around the world to look for universal principles of biology that could help explain and predict the behavior of microbial systems. The resulting collaboration, called Principles of Microbial Ecosystems (PRIME), has made progress identifying environmental factors and constraints that help shape all ecosystems. For instance, PRIME researchers have profiled the metabolic processes of hundreds of species of microbes to place them into broader metabolic classes that can be used to accurately model and predict the behavior of ecosystems. “Trying to make sense of the diversity of microorganisms, or any organism, in an environment is really complex, so the natural instinct is to start with little things — to see what one organism does,” Cordero says. “I wanted to look for things that could be generalized. Is there some sort of principal that helps explain or predict why communities assemble this way, or what we should expect in this environment or that environment? We see these broad patterns, and it begs the question of what the right variables are to study. Things become much simpler and more predictable when you identify those right variables.” Focusing on the bigger picture Cordero says he wants to break stereotypes about academics, like that they all come from elite schools and affluent families. He also wants to show students that researchers can have fun while working hard. Before the pandemic, Cordero played in a band with students from his department that featured two PhD students on guitar, a postdoctoral drummer, an MBA on the trumpet, and a master’s student singing. “That was the highlight of the week for me,” Cordero says. “Hopefully we bring it back!” Cordero’s personal life has also gotten a bit busier since the start of the pandemic — he now has a 2-year-old and 5-month-old. Overall, whether in his personal life or work, Cordero tries to focus on the big picture. “When you sequence [the genome] of something, you get this long list of taxa with Latin names, but that’s not really the most important information,” Cordero says. “The vision is that one day — hopefully not too far into the future — we can transform that information into more functional variables. [This goes back to] the pressure-volume-temperature analogy. Maybe these ecosystems can be understood with simple models, and maybe we can predict what they will do in the future. That would be a huge game-changer.”

Frequently asked questions on the new study on sperm count decline

What is happening with sperm counts?This study shows, for the first time, that sperm counts are declining everywhere, not only in in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, which was shown previously, but also in South America, Asia and Africa). This new analysis found that sperm count globally dropped by more than 50% between 1973 and 2018, and that the decline is accelerating: Since 1972, sperm count has dropped by about 1% each year. Since 2000, the annual decrease has been, on average, more than 2.6%.What do lower sperm counts this mean for our health?This accelerated decrease in global sperm counts means more people will need to use assisted reproduction to conceive a pregnancy. These findings imply more than decreased fertility; lower sperm counts are linked to more disease later in life (cardiovascular disease, diabetes and reproductive cancers) and a shorter life expectancy.Why are sperm counts declining?The decline is too rapid to be due to genetic causes alone. Some risk factors for lower sperm counts have to do with lifestyle; smoking, obesity, stress and binge drinking. In addition, environmental chemicals, particularly those that can alter the body’s hormones – the “endocrine disrupting chemicals,” such as pesticides, phthalates, BPA, PFAS chemicals and others — have been shown to reduce sperm counts and quality and are likely contributing to this decline.What can be done about lower sperm counts?While scientists continue to tease out the causes, men should avoid smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, excessive weight gain, drug and alcohol abuse, and potentially toxic chemicals. This means buying organic food when possible or washing fruits and vegetables that may have pesticide residues, avoiding plastics in food contact materials and personal care and household products that contain phthalates and other endocrine-disrupting compounds.Read more about the new study: A new analysis shows a “crisis” of male reproductive health Watch Dr. Shanna Swan discuss the work and implications

What is happening with sperm counts?This study shows, for the first time, that sperm counts are declining everywhere, not only in in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, which was shown previously, but also in South America, Asia and Africa). This new analysis found that sperm count globally dropped by more than 50% between 1973 and 2018, and that the decline is accelerating: Since 1972, sperm count has dropped by about 1% each year. Since 2000, the annual decrease has been, on average, more than 2.6%.What do lower sperm counts this mean for our health?This accelerated decrease in global sperm counts means more people will need to use assisted reproduction to conceive a pregnancy. These findings imply more than decreased fertility; lower sperm counts are linked to more disease later in life (cardiovascular disease, diabetes and reproductive cancers) and a shorter life expectancy.Why are sperm counts declining?The decline is too rapid to be due to genetic causes alone. Some risk factors for lower sperm counts have to do with lifestyle; smoking, obesity, stress and binge drinking. In addition, environmental chemicals, particularly those that can alter the body’s hormones – the “endocrine disrupting chemicals,” such as pesticides, phthalates, BPA, PFAS chemicals and others — have been shown to reduce sperm counts and quality and are likely contributing to this decline.What can be done about lower sperm counts?While scientists continue to tease out the causes, men should avoid smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, excessive weight gain, drug and alcohol abuse, and potentially toxic chemicals. This means buying organic food when possible or washing fruits and vegetables that may have pesticide residues, avoiding plastics in food contact materials and personal care and household products that contain phthalates and other endocrine-disrupting compounds.Read more about the new study: A new analysis shows a “crisis” of male reproductive health Watch Dr. Shanna Swan discuss the work and implications

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