Ireland’s sustainable mining future

In order to ensure the transition to a green economy, Ireland and Europe must be open to exploration and mining of “critical metals”, according to leading geoscientists. “Persistent misinformation”, however, in relation to exploration activities could eventually impair the sector’s ability to support the transition, the Institute of Geologists of Ireland (IGI) warned. In response, the IGI launched a science-led series of factsheets to raise awareness of “the role of mineral exploration and mining in meeting Ireland’s future societal, economic, and environmental needs”.

With decarbonisation, the switch from fossil fuels means moving to renewable options such as wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy and battery storage which will create huge demand for critical metals, it warns. “However, society’s awareness is perceived as low that all of these processes are reliant on using a wide variety of metals and minerals.”

IGI spokesman John Barry said: “A future of clean and renewable energy to mitigate climate warming is not possible without metals. Mineral exploration and mining are essential to ensure supply of these metals.”

The critical role of mining had become less recognised in an increasingly technological world yet it is one “increasingly reliant on these critical metals”.

“Mineral exploration and mining, which are highly regulated in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland” he underlined.

Available at, the series “aims to support learning and help inform the public conversation, including among communities, environmental interest groups, public representatives, and anyone with an interest in Ireland’s green energy future”.

‘Outdated perceptions’


The series was produced by experts in mineral exploration and mining, and environmental geologists based on the island of Ireland. They also address “outdated perceptions in relation to the industry and its practices, which are subject to rigorous safety and environmental standards and regulation”.

Europe’s green deal recognises the importance of ensuring mined and recycled materials in adopting green technology. “However, raw materials are lost in part or in full at various stages in the circular economy cycle. This means significant challenges still exist when it comes to realising a more circular economy without continued primary metal production,” the IGI notes.

Europe is 75 per cent dependent on imports for almost all metals and up to 100 per cent for some critical minerals. It is lagging behind the rest of the world, the IGI said, yet demand for minerals and metals has reached an all-time high, driven by population increase, advances in modern technologies and moves towards a low-carbon economy.

The Republic has only two working mines though it is a major international source of zinc generated by Tara Mines in Co Meath. Northern Ireland has one mine operated by Irish Salt Mining and Exploration in Co Antrim.

“Ireland can offer more. Strong potential exists to further explore for zinc, in addition to other known metals critical to the green economy which are also found on the island including silver, gold, copper, lead, lithium, barytes, antimony, cobalt, platinum group elements and rare earth elements,” the IGI adds.

Geologists are adapting to work in green energy technologies such as geothermal energy, carbon capture and energy storage, Mr Barry confirmed.



UK Mineco Kontango lead zinc mine, deposits guarantee the sustainable exploitation in Serbia

The lamps on the helmets of the mine workers in the womb of the mine and the “Rudnik” flotation on the mountain of the same name, the “roof” of Sumadija, will not be extinguished for at least a decade, and probably much longer. It is guaranteed by new reserves of lead and zinc ore of millions of tons, the excavation which has already begun. The latest geological surveys conducted by our and foreign specialized experts indicate that there is certainly more reserves in these ores.

– We started to dig the ore from our new ore body – confirms Aco Ilic, General Manager of Rudnik. – Its contents are outstanding, even better than expected. This was shown in November by a very high concentration of lead and zinc in the ore from the new mine. So far, we have fulfilled the plan for this year by 90 percent.

About 15 years ago, the lead and zinc mine, as it was called before the sale to the Belgrade company Kontango, was threatened to be shut down. The explored and safe reserves of the ore were at a minimum, as was the existence of the employees, whose numbers had dropped. Economists rank this privatization as one of the top ten and most successful in Serbia.

– “Rudnik” has 466 employees. The average salary is 65,000 dinars net. Of all the workers, 260 are miners, who go 62,500 times a year to the pit, more than 400 meters below the ground. The rest are working on flotation and other jobs. Recruitment of new workers is also planned. We have reduced the number of employee injuries to four, five per year, but we want to reduce them to zero. “Rudnik” received the most prestigious European awards for safety at work, because of the effective protection of workers – continues Ilic.

Earlier two million euros were spent to explore new ore deposits, 45 kilometers of wells have been drilled, while about 60 kilometers have been drilled this year.

Sustainable mining: Faint hope or urgent reality?

Engineers dealing with infrastructure development are well used to their projects facing intense scrutiny via the planning system and projects usually face vigorous opposition, often leading to further examination in the judicial system


An ‘oppose everything’ society?


The eastern region water supply, north Dublin’s Wastewater plant, numerous wind farms and road projects all face strong opposition. The Apple data centre in Athenry was abandoned in the face of judicial challenges, while the Corrib gas project took almost 15 years to materialise.

Mining is no different. The Galmoy zinc lead mine in Co Kilkenny opened in 1995 and now closed, was evaluated by two local authorities, An Bord Pleanala, the Mining Board and the High Court.

The proposed Curraghinalt gold mine in Co Tyrone has attracted more than 15,000 objections (many perhaps computer generated) and some 3,000 supporters and has already been subject to one judicial challenge.

Opposition to mining has shifted the focus to objecting to the mineral exploration phase. If opponents can stifle exploration, there can be no discoveries to mine.

Climate action and minerals


Climate action plans: the acronym ‘CAP’ is already used for the Common Agricultural Policy so I must forego CAP for a climate action plan (the CAP itself will need to change in the light of climate actions needed).

Climate action plans at national and global levels stress inter alia the need for reducing greenhouse gases by providing more renewable energy, electric vehicles, smarter buildings, better communications and reuse/recycling in a circular economy.

Realisation of these plans will require the use of significant amounts of minerals, many of which are already in short supply and/or are sourced in politically sensitive places.

The International Energy Agency estimates that the amount of copper needed to supply electric vehicles will increase by almost two million tonnes by 2030.

Demand surges from EVs will also arise for nickel, cobalt, lithium, aluminium and manganese. If HGVs and buses go electric, the demand for these minerals can be expected to increase by an order of magnitude. Without further discoveries and development of new mines, shortages will occur and prices will rise.

The EU and the US recognise the shortages of critical raw materials and have developed policies to reduce dependence on supplies from outside their jurisdictions.

However, rare earth minerals necessary for wind turbines and mobile phones are largely sourced from China. Cobalt for batteries comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, not renowned for its environmental or health and safety record.

EU policies, however, do not seem to find strong endorsement in many member states, as the mining sector in several EU countries is in decline or non-existent.

Finding and developing new mines: SLO


Geoscientists are adept at discovery, while engineers and metallurgists fulfil the development tasks. For example, recent years have seen the discovery of new lithium deposits, an integral battery mineral; supply fears were intense 10 years ago.

However, the development of new mines requires community acceptance at local and national levels of a proposed project.

This is often referred to as Social Licence to operate (SLO). The absence of SLO will delay or derail projects.

The mining industry is striving to improve its relationship with communities with initiatives like the intergovernmental forum on sustainable mining which Ireland joined this year; protocols for community engagement developed by the International Council of Mining and Metals and by policies adopted by national mining associations.

The Irish Centre for Applied Research in Geosciences (iCRAG), operated by six Irish universities led by UCD and funded by SFI, recognises the importance of public perception and understanding of geosciences. iCRAG sponsors postgraduate researchers on the issue and has recently concluded a UNESCO-sponsored workshop on the topic.

Next steps


Raising public awareness of the importance of minerals in climate action and mitigation is an urgent priority for national and local governments.

Geological Survey Ireland is a section of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and has an important role to play in this regard.

Ireland’s recently published climate action plan recognises a number of climate related tasks for GSI but does not adequately address the need to explain and promote the public understanding of minerals.

GSI has recently engaged with regional planning authorities in explaining the need to recognise the importance of resources for building materials (aggregates) for housing and infrastructure development. Similar but more extensive action is needed to bring matters to the wider public and community groups.

Professional and vocational organisations such as Engineers Ireland continue to provide informed and constructive commentary on Ireland’s infratstructure needs. Minerals and mining need to be centre stage in that process.