Minerals are found in the Earth's crust throughout the world. Where there is a high concentration of a mineral, this is referred to as a mineral deposit. If it is socially, environmentally and economically viable, a mineral deposit can be mined and the extracted mineral can be processed for many different uses.
Minerals are needed to make a variety of everyday items such as toothpaste; glass, paper, medicines, toiletries, phones, glue, plaster, cement, fertiliser, antiseptic, computers, light bulbs, stainless steel, talcum powder, and electric wiring.
A wide variety of minerals are important, sometimes critical, components of ‘green technologies’. Achieving Ireland’s national climate and energy targets, such as 70% electricity production from renewable energy sources and one million electric vehicles by 2030, requires the adoption and deployment of ‘green technologies’ to generate power from renewable sources, battery storage and implementing other system changes to support transport and electricity grid infrastructure.
Ireland has a diverse geology and a range of rich mineral deposits including zinc, lead, copper and gold-bearing quartz veins. Recent exploration has also been carried out for Platinum Group Metal (PGM) mineralization, Rare Earth Element, technology metals (for example, lithium, tantalum, tungsten and tin), nickel and chromite, diamonds and other gem minerals.
There is also significant potential across Ireland for industrial minerals. In recent years, gypsum, dolomite, silica sand, brick shale and fireclay have all been mined.
The development of Irish mineral deposits is an important component of the economy, providing essential minerals for industry while generating employment and revenue for the State. By promoting mineral exploration, the government enables the discovery and development of economic deposits. In doing this, it aims to maximise the mining sector's contribution to the economy, while protecting against social and environmental impacts.
Mineral Exploration (Prospecting) in Ireland
Mineral exploration / prospecting is the process undertaken by geoscientists, usually in a company or partnership, to find a viable mineral deposit.
Prospecting uses different techniques, such as examining of historical and geological records, mapping different rock types and mineral occurrences, collecting small samples of rock, soil or sediments for geochemical analysis, or measuring the geophysical properties of the rocks in an area.
If these techniques yield promising results, the geoscientists may wish to carry out drilling or to dig a shallow temporary trench to investigate the rock at depth. Drilling extracts a narrow diameter cylinder of rock, which helps to better understand the geology below. Trenching is excavating and exposing bedrock for the same purposes.
While mineral exploration is vital to the economy, the government has to ensure that our resources are protected; this is done through regulation and the issuing of Prospecting Licences. Exploration for minerals in Ireland is defined under the Minerals Development Acts
and is regulated by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC). A prospecting licence relates to the activity of exploring for minerals only and does not give the licence holder permission to mine.
Applicants for Prospecting Licences must provide an appropriate exploration programme for the minerals of interest, demonstrate their technical and financial capabilities and agree to licence terms, which includes a condition of undertaking work with due regard for the environment.
DECC publishes notices in local newspapers and on gov.ie
to inform the public where a Prospecting Licence is about to be granted or renewed. These notices include any assessment of the environmental effect of the activity. You can make submissions or objections to these licences within 30 days from publication of the notice.
In February 2020, DECC compiled a list of Common Questions and Concerns
that were raised by members of the public during previous Prospecting Licence public consultations. Answers and information addressing these questions and concerns have been published alongside them.
Prospecting Licence holders are required to submit reports and data on their exploration activities to DECC. These reports and data are held confidentially for either six years or until licence surrender if sooner, after which the data is made publicly available.
Ireland has a long history of mining, with records dating back to the Bronze Age, around 2000 BC. Southwest Ireland was an important copper producer, with evidence of old workings at Killarney, Co Kerry and Mount Gabriel, Co Cork.
Today, Ireland is internationally renowned as a major zinc-lead mining province. Over the last 50 years, a number of significant base metal discoveries have been made, including the giant ore deposit at Navan, Co Meath. Other minerals being mined in Ireland are Gypsum in Co Monaghan and Marble in Co Galway.
A mine for a scheduled mineral in Ireland is subject to obtaining three separate State authorisations:
planning permission from the relevant local authority
an Integrated Pollution Control (IPC) or Industrial Emissions (IE) licence from the Environmental Protection Agency
a State Mining Licence / Lease / Permission from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC)
Mining activities require a State Mining Licence, a State Mining Lease or a State Mining Permission, which are collectively referred to as State Mining Facilities (SMFs).
Any applicant for a SMF must hold a valid prospecting licence first and provide a detailed, costed closure plan as part of their application. SMFs are only issued to applicants who have planning permission, an IPC/IE licence and can adhere to best practice and environmental guidelines to ensure full extraction of the minerals while preventing subsidence and guaranteeing proper rehabilitation of the mineral workings.
Some substances found on or in the ground are not considered minerals and do not require permits or licences from DECC for development. These include the agricultural surface of the ground, turf or peat, and stone, sand, gravel or clay (except for substances included in the schedule to the 1940 Act).
Departmental officials at DECC continuously monitor mining operations. Inspections of each of the main SMFs are undertaken at least twice a year by mining consultants. These inspections ensure compliance with terms and conditions of State leases and licences and also ensure adherence to best practice. DECC is also responsible for ensuring that mine openings into old workings that exploited State-owned minerals are appropriately secured. In addition, DECC undertakes monitoring and maintenance work at the former mining areas of Avoca and Silvermines,
for example health and safety works completed at Tigroney (Avoca) in 2017 and 2020.
Ireland and International Mineral Policy
The UN Minamata Convention on Mercury
provides an international regulatory framework with the aim of protecting human health and the global environment from the harmful effects of mercury. Ireland ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury in March 2019 so primary mercury mining is prohibited under it. When the Minerals Development Act 2017 is commenced, it will prohibit the prospecting for mercury and primary mercury mining.
The Kimberley Process (KP)
is an international trade regime consisting of governments, the diamond industry and NGOs, with the goal of preventing the trade of conflict diamonds. Since its introduction in 2003, global production of conflict diamonds has decreased by 99.8%.
There are 55 participants in the KP, with the EU acting as a single participant. Anyone wishing to import or export rough diamonds into or out of the EU must do so through a designated Kimberley Process Union Authority and comply with the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS).
There are currently seven EU Member States, including Ireland, which are KP Union Authorities. The Kimberley Process and Responsible Minerals Authority (KPRMA) in DECC is a KP Union Authority and is authorised to approve imports and exports of rough diamonds.
There are also so-called 'conflict minerals' - tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold, also referred to as 3TG, which are used in everyday products such as mobile phones, cars or jewellery. In politically unstable areas, these minerals can be used to finance armed groups, fuel forced labour and other human rights abuses, and support corruption and money laundering.
The EU Conflict Minerals Regulation EU Conflict Minerals Regulation
aims to ensure that the EU supply chain for these 3TG minerals and metals is from responsible and conflict-free sources only. This regulation will come into full force across the EU on 1 January 2021. DECC is the competent authority in Ireland, which means that it is responsible for carrying out checks to ensure that EU importers of 3TG minerals or metals are complying with their obligations. DECC will introduce enabling national legislation to achieve the aims of the EU Regulation and, in doing so, facilitate Irish companies trading in conflict free minerals and metals.