Painted Desert

The spectacular Painted Desert of South Australia is a national treasure, an artist’s dream come to life in nature. Yet this stunning landscape, and the Australian Outback’s most important water resource – the Great Artesian Basin – are threatened by one of the most destructive mining projects planned for this country.  


Why it's so important

Australia’s remote and arid Outback has its own water – it is there, hidden deep below the desert. The Great Artesian Basin is one of the largest underground water reservoirs in the world, in one of the driest places on Earth. Across much of inland Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory and South Australia, people and wildlife alike rely on it as a rare source of permanent water.

This ‘fossil water’, accumulated up to 2 million years ago, makes its way to the surface in natural mound springs. For thousands of years the Great Artesian Basin has brought life across a quarter of the continent.

The natural masterpiece that is the Painted Desert lies above the Great Artesian Basin in South Australia. Its ancient weathered rock hills burst out of the surrounding flatlands of the state’s ‘breakaway country’ in a kaleidoscopic array of pastel red, brown, pink orange, yellow, white, purple and blue. Due to its isolation, The Painted Desert and the mound springs are home to unique native plants and animals. Some species living in a single mound spring can not be found anywhere else on the planet.  Due to these geological and biological – not to mention scenic – marvels, significant areas of the  Painted Desert have been declared a State Heritage Area and listed on the National Estate Register. Australia’s National Wilderness Inventory also rates much of this region as high value wilderness, deserving our protection now and into the future

The Threat

There are plans to open up the Painted Desert to coal mining.

British rogue fossil fuel company Altona Energy wants to dig a 20-square kilometre open-pit coal mine right through this spectacular landscape and down into the Great Artesian Basin for their ‘Arckaringa Coal Project’.

They intend to test damaging coal to liquid technologies on-site, a risky process producing high levels of greenhouse gas pollution, and dumping hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal mining wastes on the Painted Desert. The ‘liquid coal’ process would also cause millions of litres of ‘black water’ waste –every day.

To make matters worse Altona Energy plan to mine water. The coal they want is in the Arckaringa Basin directly below the Great Artesian Basin. They plan to drain and ‘de-water’ this essential water reserve so that natural groundwater flows do not ‘interfere’ with their operations. They plan to pump on average over 300 million litres from this important aquifer every day throughout 30 years of mining. In the driest state in the driest continent, we can not allow such an unprecedented water grab that would damage outback bores for a century and threaten the fragile mound springs, which are already listed as endangered.

Opening up coal mining in this area will create a massive carbon bomb for Australia. We know over 80 per cent of existing fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we are to have any real chance of a safe climate. With some 20 billion tonnes of low-grade coal lying in the Arckaringa Basin beneath the Great Artesian Basin – equal to 20 per cent of Australia’s coal reserves - exploiting yet more fossil fuels would further push us toward dangerous climate change.

South Australia has been a leader in climate change policy, but if massive fossil fuel mining in the Painted Desert is given the go ahead by the State Government, it would undo all our efforts.

This is only the beginning – Altona Energy plan to expand to several coal mines and a coal gas fired power station on-site, opening up the Painted Desert to the impacts of fossil fuel industrialisation.

Earlier this year the South Australian State Government approved Altona Energy to start coal drilling in the Painted Desert and to further its plans to cut a hole through the Great Artesian Basin. There has been no public consultation or public access to these secretive documents.

What we're doing about it

Protecting the iconic Australian Outback and its precious water, and stopping fossil fuel exploitation to secure a safe climate are key concerns for The Wilderness Society, and we know they are for the Australian community too.

The South Australian Campaign Centre is building a strong case for the protection of the Painted Desert and the Great Artesian Basin. We will keep fighting until we have halted these destructive fossil fuel projects. Our natural heritage, the value of water in the Outback, and a safe climate future are all too important to be threatened by short-term coal mining.

The Wilderness Society is also working with the Places You Love Alliance, a joint campaign to fight Federal and State Government moves to weaken our national environmental protection laws. Australians should be able to rely on legal powers to reject these plans and prevent their impacts on the Painted Desert and the Great Artesian Basin as clearly environmentally unacceptable.

Our vision

Our vision for the Painted Desert is to prevent the irrevocable scarring of this beautiful Outback landscape by coal and other fossil fuel mining companies. We believe that water should always be respected in the Outback, and we are committed to protecting the Great Artesian Basin and the unique and fragile springs that depend on it.  We want to see the end of polluting, destructive coal mining in South Australia. That is why The Wilderness Society is working to halt new large fossil fuel projects, to protect wilderness areas and to avoid dangerous climate change.

What you can do

You can help protect the Painted Desert and the Great Artesian Basin:

1) Contact the South Australian Campaign Centre to find out more about the campaign and how you can help.

2) Talk to your local member of Parliament and ask them to champion the protection of the Painted Desert.

3) Become a campaign champion – volunteer.

4) Join the Facebook Group: The Wilderness Society South Australia to keep up to date with local campaign actions and events.

5) Sign up for updates.

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