3.6 Monitoring

The causal network identifies activities, stressors and processes from unconventional gas resource development that may lead to changes in endpoints related to water and the environment. Monitoring is critical for evaluating changes in a system associated with specific known impacts (Gitzen et al., 2012). The causal network identifies particular points along a causal pathway where monitoring would be most useful.

The impact assessment results and structure of the causal network are used to prioritise 4 broad monitoring objectives: (i) estimating baseline and trend; (ii) comparing areas of potential impact with areas where no changes occur (control sites); (iii) monitoring compliance with, and effectiveness of, mitigation strategies; and (iv) monitoring to validate and refine the causal network.

Specific monitoring objectives define the attributes to be measured, the spatial domain, timeframe of monitoring, and detection of the magnitude of change. Selection of attributes for each of the monitoring objectives is based on ‘measurement endpoints’ and ‘environmental condition indicators’ associated with the causal network. A measurement endpoint is a measurable attribute of the ‘assessment endpoint’ associated with a link from a process to an endpoint. An example is the ‘number of mature Australian painted snipe individuals’, which is a measurement endpoint for the persistence of Australian painted snipe endpoint. A measurement endpoint links from a process in the causal network, such as mortality of native species, to an endpoint. Environmental condition indicators are attributes of stressors or processes that are relevant to, but not directly related or linked to an endpoint. An example is the ‘area burned by bushfire’, which is an attribute of the ecosystem burning process node. Ecosystem burning links to habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss , which then links to the persistence of Australian painted snipe endpoint. Environmental condition indicators are often measured at a regional scale and relate to many endpoints.

Baseline and trend monitoring can establish the initial extent and condition of endpoints and can also detect trends or changes in the future. Natural capital accounting provides a framework to capture spatial and temporal changes to water and the environment

Baseline data establishes the condition of endpoints related to water and the environment prior to unconventional gas resource development. Regional-scale data were compiled in the baseline synthesis and gap analysis for the Cooper GBA region (Holland et al., 2020). Natural capital accounting was used to compile a set of ecosystem extent and condition accounts for the Cooper GBA region ( Box 1 , Geological and Bioregional Assessment Program (2021m)). Proposals for future unconventional gas resource development require additional monitoring to provide local-scale baseline data on measurement endpoints and environmental condition indicators, which can include the extent and condition of the endpoint.

Measurement endpoints for:

  • protected fauna and flora relate to the abundance of the species and are based on the criteria for listing outlined in the EPBC Act. Environmental condition indicators include habitat extent, surface water quality and streamflow.
  • aquifers relate to groundwater chemistry and aquifer levels or pressures. Environmental condition indicators include soil chemistry to detect soil contamination that could contaminate unconfined aquifers.
  • vegetation communities relate to vegetation extent or condition. Environmental condition indicators include floodplain inundation extent and duration, streamflow, surface water quality, soil chemistry, area of bare ground and area affected by bushfire.
  • protected areas relate to attributes listed in the relevant legislation and management plans (Channel Country SEA, DIWA lakes and wetlands) or those for which thresholds of material change are available (Coongie Lakes Ramsar wetland condition). Environmental condition indicators can be measured with remote sensing tools.

Box 1 Ecosystem extent and condition accounts

Natural capital accounting seeks to capture changes to water and the environment (i.e. stocks and flows of natural resources and ecosystem services). This requires conceptualisation and measurements of the natural environment over space and time. Processes causing change and the resulting change to the environment can be measured with tools such as remote sensing, aerial mapping and weather stations. A CSIRO-developed, custom-designed spatial information system – SynthEEA (Synthesis for Environmental-Economic Accounting ) – streamlines natural capital accounting by providing standardised, reproducible, auditable and efficient methods for processing unique datasets. SynthEEA interacts with a spatial database to manage the accounting process from input of data through to generating charts and tables.

Ecosystem extent and condition accounts compiled for the Cooper GBA region include data recorded between 1957 and June 2019 (Geological and Bioregional Assessment Program, 2021m). The data are available from data.gov.au . Baseline accounts include indirect measures of productivity (relative climate wetness; Figure 9 ), stressors (disturbance and fire regime) and composition (vegetation condition; Figure 16 ) and biodiversity persistence; Box 10 ). Figure 9 shows that on average, while changes at a regional scale appear to be minor, there are important spatial and inter-annual variations that are important drivers of ecosystem condition. Baseline estimates of disturbance due to existing oil and gas industry activity (seismic surveys and other development), as well as other industries, such as agriculture and tourism, are summarised for the 4 key vegetation communities in the Cooper GBA region in Section 5 . Time-series estimates of disturbance due to seismic surveys is consistent with historical observations of vegetation recovery for different landscape classes (Doudy and Cockshell, 2016.

FIGURE 9 Relative climate wetness index showing a) temporal changes for annual and 30-year means from 1958 to 2019 relative to the 1961 to 1990 reference period for the entire region; b) annual extent and condition account in 2018 to 2019 for ecosystem types; and c) spatial changes for 1990 to 2019 relative to the 1961 to 1990 reference period

View a higher resolution copy of this figure

Example ecosystem extent and condition account data for climate wetness index (the ratio of rainfall to evapotranspiration).  A: changes through time for annual and 30-year averages, with wetter periods in the around the year 2000 and drier periods in late 2000s and 2010s. Annual values range from near zero to 0.4. B: range of values for different ecosystem types in 2018/19, ranging from 0.04 to 0.17.  C: spatial changes in the region relative to a baseline period, with climate wetness increasing to the north of Windorah in Queensland and decreasing to the south.

BVG = basic vegetation group; P/ET0 = ratio of annual precipitation (P) to annual reference evapotranspiration (ET0)

Data: Geological and Bioregional Assessment Program (2021m)

Element: GBA-COO-3-689


Control and impact monitoring is needed to detect the true impact of resource development. Ideally, control and impact sites are almost identical in nature and differ only with respect to the level of concern assessed for multiple stressors.

When assessing the potential effect of environmental impacts, it is often necessary to measure one or more indicators about the environmental condition at the potentially impacted site and compare the measurements against those collected at control sites (absence of impact or disturbance). In the absence of specific development proposals, it is not possible to provide local advice on which areas would be suitable for impact monitoring and which would be suitable as control sites. At a regional scale, locations where no or few processes lead to pathways of ‘potential concern’ are prime locations to establish regional control sites. Locations potentially affected by multiple processes of ‘potential concern’ ( Figure 10 ) are preferred locations to establish regional impact sites. The final location of control and impact sites for any local monitoring design will depend on the location and footprint of existing and proposed resource developments. For example:

  • Control sites are where no pathways of ‘potential concern’ are identified by the assessment. This includes large areas overlying relatively low prospectivity areas, such as areas outside of the Cooper Creek floodplain and on the floodplain downstream of Windorah in Queensland ( Figure 10 ).
  • Impact sites are where multiple pathways of ‘potential concern’ are identified. An example is a ‘hotspot’ on the Cooper Creek floodplain south of Windorah in Queensland, where up to 12 processes are of ‘potential concern’. There are also smaller hotspots in the west of the Cooper GBA region, where the mapped watertable is shallow and in South Australia where surface water is mapped ( Figure 10 ).

Monitoring for compliance evaluates operator adherence to legal requirements. Monitoring effectiveness of mitigation strategies checks if mitigation strategies required under regulations are meeting their objectives.

Regulation at both state and Australian Government levels monitors compliance with legal requirements. For example, the Code of Practice for the construction and abandonment of petroleum wells and associated bores in Queensland (Department of Natural Resources‚ Mines and Energy (Qld), 2018) requires reporting on requirements for the construction and maintenance of wells, the Petroleum and Geothermal Energy Act 2000 (SA) produces an annual compliance report of the regulatory performance of the petroleum and geothermal industries, and the Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989 notifies and assesses the use of industrial chemicals.

Monitoring for effectiveness of mitigation strategies can focus on pathways of ‘potential concern’. Mitigation strategies are based on existing gas industry controls and regulatory approval conditions, effective planning and design, and adherence to best practice international standards and procedures. Site management protocols aim to avoid or mitigate potential impacts on natural habitat and species distributions. However, wherever resource development occurs – particularly in the vicinity of protected species – monitoring of compliance with, and effectiveness of, mitigation strategies associated with activities and stressors is needed. Here, rather than focusing on extrapolating inference to the broader region, the intention is to closely monitor targeted sites at a local level where an impact or change is most likely to occur.

Compliance monitoring is related to mitigation strategies associated with links between activities and stressor, while the environmental condition indicators are associated with links from stressors to processes and are good candidates for monitoring the effectiveness of mitigation strategies associated with a stressor.

FIGURE 10 Number of processes with pathways of ‘potential concern’ in each grid cell of the Cooper GBA region

The greatest concentration of potential concerns from the processes related to unconventional gas resources development in the Cooper GBA region is in the central part of the region (south-west of Windorah in Queensland). The next greatest concentration is in the south-west part of the region (around Moomba and Innamincka in South Australia).

Data: Geological and Bioregional Assessment Program (2021c)

Element: GBA-COO-3-651

Monitoring to validate and refine the causal network can increase confidence in cause-and-effect relationships and material change thresholds. However, monitoring to evaluate causation requires careful design.

Monitoring of environmental condition indicators related to links between stressors and processes along pathways of concern in the causal network can improve understanding and confidence of the assessment and individual links. Future monitoring could reduce uncertainty in critical links along pathways by increasing confidence in the cause-and-effect relationship or providing more information on material thresholds. Monitoring designs to evaluate causation are challenging. Even when data from monitoring reveals strong associations, correlations do not always indicate causation, unless the monitoring program has been designed to allow this to be estimated. Hayes et al. (2019) provide guidance on monitoring designs to establish causation.


The causal network for the Cooper GBA region has been delivered as an interactive online tool, GBA Explorer . This allows users to explore the full detail of the causal network .

Fact sheets are available on the Geological and Bioregional Assessment website .

  • Fact sheet 22: Seismic surveys (Geological and Bioregional Assessment Program, 2021o)
  • Fact sheet 26: Using natural capital accounting to track changes to ecosystem extent and condition (Geological and Bioregional Assessment Program, 2021p)
  • Fact sheet 28: Development scenarios for unconventional gas resource development (Geological and Bioregional Assessment Program, 2021q)
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