Environmental management and natural resource exploration in Northern Ireland

The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) has provided geoscientific advice to the Northern Ireland Government since 1947. Promoting investment in exploration for minerals and energy resources by geoscience mapping and research and the supervision of exploration licensing, GSNI’s work has prompted or contributed to a £32 million investment in industrial mineral exploration between 2007 and 2012.

GSNI is a statutory consultee to the Planning Services and comments on all applications with a geological component, and annually responds to some 600 other requests for information, mostly from industry. GSNI manages and monitors groundwater resources in the Province on behalf of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA).

The Tellus projects

GSNI Tellus

Tellus and Tellus2

The Tellus project, funded by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI; now part of the Department for the Economy) and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (now the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs), is the most concentrated geological mapping project ever undertaken in Northern Ireland. It has produced new geochemical and geophysical maps that will extend and deepen our knowledge of the geology, soils, natural resources and environment of Northern Ireland. This information supports the exploration for, and development of, mineral and hydrocarbon resources, informs land use planning and provides a country-wide environmental baseline.

Effects of the Tellus project

The area of Northern Ireland licensed for mineral exploration increased from 15 to 70 per cent. Company spending on exploration increased since the publication of data in 2007 was, from 2007 to 2011: £1.8m, £3.5m, £4.0m, £8.2m, and £9.3m.

GSNI's input into IRETHERM has resulted in increased geothermal exploration.

We have a new environmental baseline of terrestrial geochemistry, identifying areas with potentially toxic levels of heavy metals and areas where essential nutrient elements are deficient.

There is now a resource for health research and public health management, as well as an improved means of mapping the distribution of radon and detailed mapping of potentially harmful elements and radiation.

Tellus Border project

The Tellus Border project (2010–2013) extended the surveys and provided integrated cross-border datasets for integrated resources and environmental management (focusing on soil-carbon stocks, wetlands and groundwater protection) across six border counties — Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. The project was a cross-border initiative between the GNSI, the Geological Survey of Ireland, Queen's University Belfast and Dundalk Institute of Technology. Information from the project is assisting environmental management and is supporting sustainable development of natural resources in the border region. The project was a follow-on from the Tellus project.

Management of natural resources exploration in Northern Ireland

Since 1947, GSNI has advised DETI and its predecessors on the management of mineral (excluding construction materials) and energy exploration in NI. NI is currently the most heavily explored region of any in UK, with 47 per cent of its land areas licensed for mineral exploration.

GSNI scrutinise applications for mineral prospecting permits, work with companies in their implementation, review progress and advise DETI on progress and continuance. GSNI is central to the development of NI policy on mineral and hydrocarbon exploration, most recently in the drafting of the Petroleum Production (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010, and in advising DETI on policy with regard to shale gas exploration.

The mineral resources map project entailed compiling all available maps and information on NI mineral resources and delineating historical mines and quarries, areas of potential resources, and other relevant data. A complementary database was compiled. The project was funded by the NI Department of the Environment (DoE) between September 2011 and March 2012 and supported by an industry forum. The mineral resources maps and database provide an essential framework for assessing planning applications in areas where there is a potential mineral resource. These maps provide a framework for future economic development.

Impacts of GSNI work on mineral exploration

As well as the promotion of NI mineral potential to industry, leading to an increase in exploration licensing and investment, GSNI's work is central to development of onshore hydrocarbons resources through:

  • policy advice to DETI
  • the provision of advice to developers
  • the awarding and overseeing of petroleum licences

Mineral prospecting licences include three where companies are assessing the potential for establishing underground energy storage (local compressed air from wind farms and imported gas) in salt caverns, operations that have attracted major inward investment (£15 million since 2007).

GSNI also supervises existing metal and salt mining. There is one salt mine and one gold mine currently operating and expanding; a second gold mine is an advanced stage of development.

Groundwater management in NI

GSNI Hydrogeology

For 12 years, GSNI has closely assisted the NIEA with NI's obligations under the Water Framework Directive (WFD). GNSI collects and collates groundwater data, monitors groundwater boreholes and provides hydrogeological mapping, which has resulted in improved coherence of groundwater management, improved characterisation of groundwater resources, better understanding of threats and improved abstraction control.

Impacts include:

  • delineation of groundwater bodies
  • development of methods for characterising and classifying groundwater bodies as part of the first river basin management plans
  • establishing a regional groundwater chemical and level monitoring system

Protection of earth science sites in NI

In 2014/15, GSNI worked closely with the NIEA to designate earth science areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs), a key deliverable in the Department of the Environment's 'Programme for Government' 2011–2015. ASSIs are areas of land that have been identified by scientific survey as having the highest degree of conservation value and are legislated for through the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002. GSNI provided information packages under two agreed themes: clay-with-flints, and Caledonian igneous complexes. Each of these packages included site maps, site citation, condition assessment, views about management, conservation objectives and special places leaflets to landowners.

Impacts include:

  • legal protection for nine earth science sites in NI through their designation as ASSIs
  • provision of information on 15 earth science sites providing the groundwork for their full designation as ASSIs
  • increased awareness of the significance and importance of many of NI's key geological sites


Marie Cowan: Director, Geological Survey of Northern Ireland


Tellus projects (Tellus, Tellus2 and Tellus Border)

Management of natural resources exploration in NI