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What does Origin Energy backing out of gas exploration mean for the Channel Country?

By Maddelin McCosker and Victoria Pengilley
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What does Origin Energy backing out of gas exploration and fracking mean for the Channel Country?(Supplied: Kerry Trapnell)

On a stormy afternoon, grazier Kerri Pidgeon and her husband Ken Griffiths are checking creek levels on their sprawling cattle station.

For almost 40 years, the couple has been living and working the land at Hayfield station, just outside of Jundah, in the heart of outback Queensland's pristine Channel Country.

The region is one of the last remaining free-flowing desert river systems in the world, where Lake Eyre Basin's spectacular webs of waterways spread over 120 million hectares across four states and territories.

But for the past several years, the graziers have been battling to protect this landscape from unconventional gas exploration — or fracking.

Kerry Pidgeon and Ken Griffiths are relieved Origin Energy is backing out of its gas exploration permits in the Channel Country.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

"[Water is] the lifeblood of the people living here," Mr Griffiths said.

"This is one of the great wonders of the world and any fracking or development on the flood outs of the Thomson and Cooper [rivers] is ridiculous."

So, news this week that gas company Origin Energy intends to review its plans to explore the Cooper-Eromanga basins in the Channel Country should have been welcome.

But traditional owners, graziers and lobby groups believe the fight is far from over.

Just a 'change of reins'

Late last year, the Queensland government quietly granted 11 applications to Origin Energy, allowing it to eventually drill for fossil fuels across over 250,000 hectares of the region.

But earlier this week, the company announced it would review its plans in the region "with a view to exiting over time".

Mithaka man George Gorringe has advocated for better protection for his home for years.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

The announcement was made as Origin revealed it had sold its stake in the Beetaloo Basin, a potentially high-producing shale gas basin in the Northern Territory, amid uncertain and expensive efforts to drive the projects into production phase.

Origin Energy could now either sell its other exploration permits to another energy company or forfeit the sites back to the Queensland government.

"It's not stopping industry, it's just a change of reins … it's just going to continue," Ms Pidgeon said.

'The devil you know'

Mithaka elder George Gorringe grew up alongside the towering red sandhills of the frontier town of Windorah.

It is where the vital Thomson and Barcoo Rivers meet to form the multi-channelled Cooper Creek.

Mr Gorringe was surprised by Origin Energy's announcement but said it "changed nothing".

"Sometimes the devil you know is better [than the one you don't]," he said.

"I don't know what [the] next mob is going to be like."

Traditional owner George Gorringe hopes the news of Origin leaving the Channel Country is a "wake-up call".(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

For several months, Mr Gorringe has led discussions with the state government, advocating for better protection for his home.

Until this week, the traditional owner was hopeful there would be a positive outcome. Now he's not so sure.

"But once [Origin leaves] it will change the equation again," he said.

Government surprised by announcement

In a statement, Origin Energy said it would now focus on a review of existing permit sites.

It is understood the Queensland government was unaware of Origin's plans until they were made public on Monday.

A spokesperson for the Department of Resources said the government would have very little to do with the process due to its commercial nature.

"The potential sale of exploration permits is a commercial matter between the holder and prospective buyers," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Locals fear fracking would "destroy" the Channel Country's sensitive river systems.(Supplied: Kerry Trapnell)

They said any sale or transfer of exploration rights would be assessed by the department during the transfer process.

Environmental lobby group Lock The Gate said it was concerned "cowboy" tactics would be used by incoming energy groups.

"Origin is a very big player and they're a very well-resourced company," national coordinator Ellen Roberts said.

"There's the risk of these small companies exhibiting cowboy types of behaviour."

'Disastrous' impact for organic graziers

Fracking has divided local opinion, with some believing it could bring financial stability and much-needed infrastructure to communities struggling with population retention.

But Mr Gorringe said there was no guarantee of that happening.

"For a few dollars and a few jobs … I don't see any real benefits of it," he said.

More than 250,000 hectares of land in the Channel Country is subject to Origin Energy's applications.(Supplied: Queensland government)

Others fear fracking on the floodplains would have longstanding consequences for the thriving organic beef industry.

"The effect it would have would be disastrous," Mr Griffiths said.

"I can still remember the time through mustering … we'd ride our horses into that big waterhole and put your billy down and get the lovely cool water.

"I wouldn't like to be doing that if there's a lot of fracking happening on the Channel Country."

Ms Pidgeon said she had little faith the environment would be protected by the state government or energy companies from potential chemical spills.

"Accidents happen, so if there's any damage to the environment, it might not recover," she said.

"You've got some of the safest food in the world here … it should be protected at all costs," Mr Griffiths added.