Seanad debates

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Geological Survey of Ireland: Statements


4:35 pm

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas as ucht an chuiridh teacht go dtí an Seanad inniu. I am delighted to be in the House to present this statement.

The work of the Geological Survey of Ireland, a division of my Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, covers a vast scope. It acts as the national earth science agency. Its remit is to conduct geological surveys to assist in the sustainable development of our natural resources. It provides a wealth of information and scientific knowledge, free to all citizens and to me as Minister of State, and independent scientific advice and data on a wide range of topics, from mapping of the Irish seabed to protecting public wells to mapping landslide susceptibility to remote sensing of subsidence and other natural hazards.

Much of the subsurface of our country is a mystery to the majority of its citizens, yet much of our economy is based on it or impacts upon it. The geology, or the ground beneath our feet, is where we grow our food, extract sands, gravels and stone for building, from where we pump our water for drinking supplies, and mine for lead and zinc. It is also the unseen space where we place much of our waste into landfill, where man-made pollution ends up, and from where naturally occurring hazards like landslides, sinkholes and radon gases originate. GSI covers all these aspects and more, and impacts through collaboration with Government partners, providing guidance in the planning processes, supporting education and outreach, de-risking investment into Ireland for exploration, supporting indigenous SMEs and providing guidance and steering of third level research.

To put the work in context, let me describe and outline the economic scope of geoscience in Ireland. Near the height of the boom, in 2006, the value of the geoscience sector to the economy was put at €4.24 billion, some 3% of GDP, contributing significantly to the building, energy, mining and environmental services sectors. A more recent independent study of the minerals industry alone puts the value of that sector at a still significant €800 million per annum, representing 1,400 jobs, largely in rural areas.

Given that context, let me explain the role of the Geological Survey of Ireland. The GSI's primary function is to map the rocks, subsoils and minerals of Ireland, both onshore and offshore. It makes high-quality digital and paper maps available to the public and professionals. I would like to stress that all of the digital data, information and knowledge gathered by the GSI on our national geology is available free of charge, on the GSI's and my Department's websites, probably one of the most significant and diverse bodies of knowledge freely made available by the State to all of its citizens and beyond.

The GSI also has a very active education and outreach programme which is built around successful products, explaining Irish geology and its natural resources and is aimed at primary, secondary and third level students and their teachers. Increasingly, I am delighted to say, these are being produced bilingually, and they support the education of geography and geology in the Irish language. I had the pleasure last week to launch a number of these Irish language products at one of our newest gaelscoileanna, Coláiste Ailigh, Letterkenny.

Is treoir shothuigthe staidéir é an foilseachán "An Gheolaíocht ó Bhun go Barr" faoi na bunphróisis gheolaíocha agus thíreolaíocha a bhaineann le hÉirinn. Tá sé fíorúsáideach d'iarbhunscoileanna agus beidh sé an-úsáideach do dhaltaí meánscoile sa Ghaeltacht agus lasmuigh di. Beidh sé fíorluachmhar do dhaoine fásta ar mhaith leo foghlaim faoi stair nádúrtha na hÉireann agus a gcuid Gaeilge a fheabhsú ag an am céanna. The publication of "An Gheolaíocht ó Bhun go Barr" as an accessible study guide to the basic geological and geographical processes relevant to Ireland is particularly useful for post-primary schools. It will be of great use to secondary school pupils in the Gaeltacht and outside it. It will also be of immense value to adults who will be able to learn about the natural history of Ireland while improving their Irish. I am going to make the book available to all Senators. Maybe they can share it with their constituents in bunscoileanna and meánscoileanna. Tá ceann d'achan duine sa lucht éisteachta.

I would like to speak briefly about the Tellus project. Many Senators from Border counties might recall the aircraft that flew low over the countryside to collect geophysical data over recent years. This was done as part of the Tellus Border project. The airborne survey was just one component of the project. Extensive land-based sampling and geochemical analysis of soils, sediments and stream waters was also conducted, along with a range of sponsored applied research on the data. The Tellus Border phase was conducted with the assistance of €5 million in INTERREG funding from the special EU programmes body. It was delivered in partnership with the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, Dundalk Institute of Technology and Queen’s University Belfast. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources subsequently committed funding of €1.5 million for 2014 and €3 million for 2015 to continue the Tellus programme into other areas. The north midlands region of Longford, Roscommon and Westmeath is currently being surveyed, with data to be released early next year.

The Geological Survey of Ireland's largest endeavour is the programme of integrated mapping for the sustainable development of Ireland's marine resource, known as INFOMAR. The aim of this national marine mapping programme is to complete the surveying of all of Ireland's marine territory by 2026. This programme, which is funded by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, is managed by the Geological Survey of Ireland in conjunction with the Marine Institute. A major milestone will be reached next year when the first phase of inshore mapping is completed. The mapping results are applied across a range of sectors including safety, environment, fisheries, energy, infrastructure and heritage. Other applications include research, EU collaboration and, critically, support of Ireland's claims for sovereignty over its marine territory. INFOMAR, which is acknowledged internationally as a world-class example of best practice, has been listed in Ireland's integrated marine plan, Harnessing our Ocean Wealth, as a key enabler of blue growth. Like any long-term Government programme, INFOMAR is periodically externally reviewed. It has consistently returned a positive benefit-to-cost ratio, which has estimated a return on the project of four to six times its cost. The programme received Government approval in 2013 to continue at the current level of €3 million per annum until 2018 at least. Such provision has been made in my Department's budget.

I will describe briefly the Geological Survey of Ireland's environmental, planning and safety initiatives. It carries out mapping that is targeted at the development of specific planning tools and initiatives to support public safety. These tools and initiatives, which are of vital use to planners and local authorities, include the programme of groundwater mapping for the protection of the underground aquifers that provide over 20% of Ireland's water supplies. This programme works closely with the Environmental Protection Agency and has been critical in Irish compliance with the EU water framework directive.

The Geological Survey of Ireland also has a strong role in research. It supports research through data, expertise, partnering and funding across a range of programmes. For example, it managed the Griffith geoscience research awards between 2007 and 2014. This major programme, which was funded by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, provided almost €10 million across the island of Ireland for research in the sector. It is considered a major success in terms of building capacity. This is best demonstrated by the recent successful award by Science Foundation Ireland of €24 million, over the six years from 2015 to 2021, for a new Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geoscience. Work in this area is being targeted on a number of research spokes, namely raw materials, marine geoscience, groundwater, hydrocarbons and big data. This research is supported by platforms of enabling technologies such as 3D models, new sensing equipment and accurate laboratories. The stated aim of the research centre is to help unlock Ireland's natural resources, to contribute to securing supply of energy and safe water, and to educate and improve understanding of geosciences. The Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geoscience, which will include strong involvement and support from the natural resources divisions of my Department, has the potential to put Ireland on the map as a location for world class geoscience research.

I wish to refer to a relatively new and innovative GSI programme in the area of job creation. In addition to provision of maps, data and advice for development and planning, GSI is also involved in a programme targeted at creation and retention of jobs in its sector. Geoscience Ireland is a business cluster of Irish based companies providing geological and related services who are collaborating to win work overseas. The cluster, currently comprising 22 companies, is managed by GSI with assistance from Enterprise Ireland and has worked closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Initiatives undertaken include training, attendance at trade fairs, group branding and promotion. Critically, to date the 22 companies have added 145 jobs in the period since they joined the cluster in 2013.

I thank the House and the Members for this opportunity to share with them some of the activities under my area of responsibility. I trust they will have found it both informative and interesting to get this update into an area of Government activity that may not be often in the spotlight or news, but I also hope they will agree with me as to the fundamental need for Government support for such strong, independent and scientifically valid endeavours, given their economic impact and safety importance. Obviously Members will have questions and I will do my best to engage with them on the issues relevant to their areas of interest. I acknowledge the endeavours of my officials, coming from a perspective where I spent my time learning geography at secondary level and at university level and then teaching geography. As a resource I probably had one geography book with which to try to enthuse my students on a daily basis, which was not easy, as I tried to talk about Pangaea and the theory of continental drift and the excitement of metamorphic rocks, sedimentary rocks and so on. It was difficult. However, I wish to note that within the Department there is a new energy and a new enthusiasm which works in a number of ways. There is a relationship between the education sector and the officials in the Department and industry. It is a three-way working relationship. The enthusiasm of the people in the Department who are tasked with this responsibility is as a result of this new thinking and new type of collaboration. I encourage Members to go out with this new bilingual book on the geological mapping of Ireland. It is interesting and will be of interest to primary and secondary school teachers.

4:50 pm

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. Tá sé soiléir go bhfuil ag éirí go maith leis an nGaolainn freisin.