In Search of Techne

Ch 4.1: Non-Renewable Resources

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to

(This chapter covers some aspects of the controversies related to the development of public policy in the fields of petroleum and base metal resources and their rational exploitation)

November 17 1971

Such a wealth of material has become available on base-metal deposits in Ireland that I feel I will have to blend it off with other topics over a period of time. If I were to follow all the trails suggested by the recent Galway symposium on 'the Genesis of Base Metal Deposits in Ireland' (November 5-7), I could fill this colums for months, to the exclusion of all else.

Fortunately, however, an appreciable part of this service has already been carried out by 'Technology Ireland', which in its October issue carries a comprehensive survey of mining in Ireland in all its aspects: how a mine operates (J Platt, Avoca), prospecting techniques (Dr CT Morley, Rio Tinto Zinc), the Irish minerals industry (Dr AP Carroll, IIRS), developments in Northern Ireland (HE Wilson, NI Geological Survey), some guide-lines from the past (Dr JS Jackson) and 'Mining in the National Economy' (J Murray, Sunday Independent Financial Editor). There is also a short article in the 'industrial archaeology' series by KA Mawhinney on the 19th century Allahies copper workings.

Those whose appetites were whetted by the Resources Study Group's publication 'Irish Mining: the Need for Action' (20p, Resources Study Group, TCD)(1) will find in this issue of 'Technology Ireland' factual material to confirm the picture projected by the Study Group.

The basic economics may be summarised as follows:

     Spent on exploration since 1958:                   6.5M
     Cumulative capital investment to 1970:             22.5 
     Ditto estimated up to 1975:                        39
     Annual payroll 1970:                                2.85
     Annual value of exports 1970:                      19.5
     Annual royalty to State                             0.5
The annual value of exports is sometimes an unreliable measure, as it can depend on the internal transfer pricing policy of a supra- national body.

J Murray asks pointedly why the 20-year tax-holiday was granted after the four main deposits had been proved.

The investment figures quoted are well within the compass of a properly-managed State body. It is not too late to establish one. It would be possible to use the existing (somewhat derisory) royalties , together with a levy on ore exports specifically for this purpose, to finance an expansion of the Geological Survey, to establish a College of Mining Technology, to upgrade the University Geological schools, to develop other specialities such as geophysics and geochemistry, and to establish a proper technical base, with appropriate training in technicianship.

This would provide the manpower-base for the proposed State body, with initial supplementation by returned emigrants with the right kind of experience.

The next step would be for the State to start taking up equities in the existing companies, with the ultimate objective of a controlling interest. The State could, if it wished, make the issue of new prospecting licences to established companies conditional on this. Or it could refuse to renew existing licences unless equity were offered to the State.

Finally, in the interim period before the full development of the State body, it would be necessary to finance prospecting with State support, repayable by a levy on subsequent findings sufficient to cover both the initial outlay and to provide for adequate industrial investment in the areas concerned after exhaustion of the ores,as well as environmental rehabilitation.

It is quite feasible to make these estimates reliably using modern techniques; no mining concessions should be given without fixing the levy appropriately. No 'tax holiday' procedure should ever be considered again for mining. Indeed, there is a strong case for a public enquiry into the origins of the present tax-holiday agreements, with a view to exposing those responsible......

To return to the Galway conference: first consider the attendance statistics. There were 112 delegates from foreign-owned mining interests, 35 from foreign universities, 24 from Irish universities, 21 from Irish State bodies and six from State bodies of foreign countries. There were a few others with undeclared interests, presumably mining consultants.

Despite the heavy involvement of foreign companies, an appreciable sympathy was evident on the part of the people concerned for the Irish case. Their employers have done too good a deal at the Irish expense. The Irish concerned know. The foreigners know that we know and are waiting for us to act; they are rather surprised that we haven't already done so.

Some Galway students, local republicans and socialists picketed the Great Southern Hotel, where the symposium took place. The Resources Study Group pamphlet was on sale outside, and was bought up rapidly. Professor Skevington, who was acting as host to the symposium on behalf of the Galway branch of the Irish Geological Association, on his own initiative invited the spokesman of the picketing group to address the assembly. This was welcomed; the spokesman was listened to politely and clapped. What he said was ignored in the subsequent duscussion, being out of order, but considerable informal discussion took place outside the framework of the conference proper. The main attack was on the tax-holiday; a hard-line 'nationalisation without compensation' case was also made.

This ultra-leftism spoils what otherwise would be a good case. It is a pity that people do not play more chess. Castro never nationalised any foreign asset without offering compensation; when the US-owned refinery refused to take Soviet oil, he nationalised it. The US refused to take the compensation offered, preferring to have an imperialist claim to assets on Cuban soil. This sequence of moves put the US morally in the wrong. The coat-trailing slogan 'nationalisation without compensation' is counter-productive if the interests concerned can get back at you by blocking your credit elsewhere!.....

December 1 1971

...This week I want to convey some idea of the geology. Possibly the most interesting contribution to the Galway symposium on 'Base Metal Genesis' (the word means 'birth', 'generation', how and why the mines are where they are) was by Professor GR Davis, of Imperial College, London.

The three basic mechanisms at work are 'syngenesis' (ie the ore is laid down at the same time as the rocks, at the bottom of the sea), 'hydrothermal' (ie the rocks are enriched by minerals dissolved in water exposed to mineral-rich volcanic material) and 'magmatic' (ie directly due to material rising volcanically from great depths).

Combinations of all three can take place, as was described by Dr CE Williams, Director of the Irish Geological Survey, from his experience in research in the South Sea Islands. Here syngenetic deposition of enriched material can be seen going on as a result of hydrothermal effects produced by active volcanoes. The system he described could, in a sense, be regarded as a 'model' of Ireland in Lower Carboniferous times, when the rocks which contain our present mineral resources were being laid down by the ocean, and their features being determined by the flow of the ocean currents.....

...The experience of the African mines has given rise to a wealth of theory:the Rand system is a large sedimentary basin; Zambia used to be regarded as hydrothermal but now is regarded as syngenetic.

All ore-formation is complex, but attempts are now being made to quantify the process and to understand its dynamics. The importance of water as a concentrator, by various low-temperature processes, possibly involving bacteria, is beginning to be understood. The oil people (who tend to be regarded as a world of their own) have quantitative data on the movement of water in porous material.

One process considered by Professor Davis was the squeezing of water out from deposited rocks by the weight of the overlying layers. This water can carry with it dissolved materials which precipitate when they reach some boundary where the acidity changes. Surface features can influence the flow of this water. Also important are 'faults': this is a technical geological term used to describe a break in continuity, or slippage, due possibly to an earthquake. Faults can act as a plumbing system to convey mineral-rich water (whether at high or low temperature) into concentration areas. All recent Irish finds are associated with faults.

Professor Tom Murphy, of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, has been carrying out for many years gravity and magnetic mapping in Ireland using geophysical techniques.... He was able to give some indication of correlation between his mapping and the existing ore locations. The reason appears to be the existence of surface features under the lower carboniferous (the 'basement tolography') which govern the flow of the mineralising waters. Professor Murphy's techniques provide a 'window' into the basement which is cheaper than drilling.

There is no substitute, however, for drilling. A mass of drill-core material has been accumulated.....the only record available to posterity of these resources, laid down over tens of millions of years, some hundreds of million years ago, which our short-sighted civilisation is squandering in decades.

This core material, if collated and analysed, is a powerful tool for basic geological research, leading to further discoveries. By all accounts the Geological Survey in Ireland is not yet staffed and equipped to cope with the volume of material that is coming in. If a National Core Archive is not built up rapidly around this mass of material, before the bits get lost or disordered, a unique opportunity will be lost for assembling effectively a body of sub-surface geological knowledge available for exploitation by a future State body.

The exploitation of the geochemical survey potential of the National Soil Survey, being carried out by the Agricultural Institute, is another task awaiting the attention of an expanded and re-structured Geological Survey.

The money to do this is readily available, by the expedient of legislating to tap some of the existing profitable exploitations.....the 'tax holiday' concept...can be revised in the long-term interest. Legal brains abound when it comes to drafting laws to superpose constitutional addenda which in fact amend existing Articles without saying so(2). Let them turn their minds to amending tax holiday legislation instead.

March 22 1972

...the Irish Geological Association has produced a bound volume of the Proceedings of their Galway Conference on November 5-7 last on 'the genesis of base metal deposits in Ireland'. There has been a demand for these proceedings; they may be obtained from Professor D Skevington in UCG, for as long as the supply lasts. There is, apparently, no charge, or else the omitted to print the price....

Murrough O'Brien gave the McNeill Lecture in the TCD Engineering School on March 3. This is an annual ritual event, usually philosophical, sometimes practical or technique-orientated.

As sometime Director of the Geological Survey and currently General Manager of Tara Explorations, who are developing one of the richest mines in Europe at Navan, Murrough O'Brien is an example of a practical man who has pursued an idea single-mindedly for a long time and has succeeded. When he graduated in 1942 he was the only 'economic geologist' in Ireland. Now there are 40.

He outlined his early Avoca work; he attributed the early failure to faulty engineering technique.

He advanced the hypothesis that base-metal mines can provide the basis for the initial 'take-off' of an underdeveloped country. He cited Finland as an example of a nation which had carried the processing of the extracted ores to a sophisticated extreme.

The indications are, however, that the present deal between the Government and the foreign-owned mining companies, of which Tara is one, is unlikely to enable the Finnish pattern to be repeated here.

Is Murrough O'Brien, perhaps, dropping a hint that a better deal is possible if the Government were to push for it? Is O'Brien the pioneering Irish economic geologist uneasily torn between conflicting loyalties?

......There is increasing world concern over the rapid use of readily available but non-renewable resources. I have to hand the 'Menton Statement' , produced by a panel of international repute, including Thor Heyerdahl, Jaques Monod, Lord Ritchie-Calder, Ulrich von Weizacker and about 100 others, and circulated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation.....

Fast-buck economic technologists will, no doubt, dismiss this as 'crank stuff'. It isn't. It is an expression of an increasing international scientific concern.

The Menton Statement...calls for international agreement to curb the unthinking application of large-scale technological innovation, and for legislation to promote the recycling of resources.....

Such statements can only achieve political effect if they are intelligently popularised, so that electorates become aware of them. This is perhaps a job for the new Dublin 'science and society' group (the Kane-Bernal Association).....(3)

February 22 1973

Professor CH Holland, of the TCD Geology Department, in one of the lunchtime science popularisation lectures in TCD last Friday had some sharp words to say about Irish mineral resources. It is a pity that the event was not covered by the national press, as it constituted good election material for those who are critical of Government policies.

The history of Irish base-metal exploitation is one of continuous expansion from the Bronze Age up to the end of the 19th century. The gap which intervened between then and the boom of the 60s Professor Holland attributed primarliy to the decline, in the intervening years, of the Geological Survey.

The 1956 Finance Act gave a four-year tax holiday, followed by four years at half the rate. This was sufficient to start the exploration boom, which snowballed after Tynagh and Gortdrum had made it clear that Ireland constituted a 'base-metal province' where deposits occurred according to certain rules, with a degree of predictability.

Professor Holland then went on to castigate as 'lunacy' the 1967 Act which gave a 20-year tax holiday: this is enough time for any company to exhaust a deposit and withdraw.

The Indonesian government once had a five-year tax holiday; subject to political pressure this was amended to a 32% tax rate before a four-year break-point, after which it reverted to the normal rate of 42%.

Professor Holland quoted with evident approval the Resources Study Group work, and displayed a cartoon showing a burglar being helped by the householder to pack his loot, while the latter assured the former that the family was unlikely to wake up.

While not accepting that the RSG's '850M Robbery' gave an exact picture (he felt that the costs had been underestimated) Professor Holland urged strongly that these deals be re-negotiated by the incoming Government, in a manner less naive and more in accordance with international practice.

Professor Holland noted with approval the degree of environmental concern that the mining companies were beginning to show. Mogul at Avoca is experimenting with re-vegetating the tips, and Tara at Navan has engaged environmental consultants and has plans for extensive tree cover. With that amount of money they can well afford a few trees!

On natural gas, Professor Holland criticised the short-sightedness of the Government in granting the original offshore licence to Marathon on such liberal terms. He also criticised the lack of concern for the location of refineries shown by the State. It is not enough to impose conditions; it is necessary to make the conditions knowledgeably stringent and to have means of enforcement at hand, under State control.

Thus far mainly Professor Holland. I add my own comment: given that we have a government that is wedded to private enterprise, it is not Utopian to demand that the State should take up equities in all these geologically-based resource-exploitations, as a condition of granting a licence. It would then be possible for a resolute State to keep on threatening to take a controlling interest each time the licence came up for renewal, and to impose conditions for the training of Irish geologists, geophysicists and engineers, so that a nationally-owned system would in the end become viable.

By these means Japanese capitalists have soaked up US investment and knowhow, while still retaining control, with the result that Japan is now one of the world's strongest economies. To deal with multi-national corporations a small nation-state must learn to be hard-nosed and to drive a bargain. This ability our present Government just has not got.

June 20 1973

The work of the research vessel 'Aquatic Explorer', which is currently prospecting for oil off the west of Ireland, was described by Donal Musgrave(4) on May 11. This followed a public-relations trip the previous day, when a number of newspaper people were taken out and shown the nature of the work.

The vessel is specially designed and equipped. It would be uneconomic.. for our government to invest in equipment of this type. It would be cheaper to hire one and organise ourselves to squeeze the data it produces dry of relevant information.

The vessel functions by towing a large open-ended rubber tube in its wake; this is filled with an explosive mixture of propane and oxygen, and sparked. The resulting explosion creates echoes from successive layers of rock below the sea-bed; these are detected acoustically and recorded, together with position reference marks. The records are analysed and pieced together with the aid of a computer in Texas; a recogniseable signal is extracted from the background noise by a mathematical filtering technique.

The analysed records are available to the Irish Geological Survey Office in Dublin. Their interpretation by skilled staff, who know how to recognise the signal and to decode the references to its location, would put the Irish Government into a position to drive a harder bargain, when it comes to the question of exploitation licences, than they would be if they were dependent on information derived purely from the other party. In this respect, the Government has the pattern of the Norwegians to follow.

The 'Aquatic Explorer' carries on board an air liquefying plant,of industrial proportions, for supplying the oxygen. It carries two independent position-finding systems. One of these is an absolute system which is based on the world-wide low-frequency radio network. The other is based on the Doppler effect, and is absolute near the coast in shallow water, but in deep water it is of relative value only. Both combined give an accuracy of the order of a ships length.....

The Irish interest in the exploration, financially, is 20%. So far there is no evidence that the private interests concerned have understood the importance of buying know-how: they are apparently content to leave this end of the matter to Hunt International, who own the boat. There are on the market, I have no doubt, oil men of Irish origin and international experience who would welcome the chance of being retained by an Irish oil company in order to place their specialist knowledge at the service of the nation. Business acumen and Bank of Ireland connections are not enough in this field. You need technology.

There are three phases: exploration, drilling and then exploiting. Exploration by the techniques as used by Aquatic Explorer serves to to increase the probability that where you drill you will get oil. It remains a probability. Even if oil is never found, however, there is money to be made by servicing the drilling-rigs from the nearest shore-point. The town of Aberdeen in Scotland, now experiencing a boom, is evidence of this process. About two months ago there was a conference on offshore oil at Aberdeen; the Irish representation there was a somewhat haphazard group from IIRS, RTE and IDA; RTE shortly afterwards produced a programme on the Norwegian off-shore oil developments.

This is not to reflect on the people concerned; more power to them that they and their sponsoring organisations had the wit to feel the need to go. My point is that this is a crucial field for the future of the country, worth possibly hundreds of millions of pounds, and it is being tackled by procedures that can only be described as Mickey Mouse. We need a proper national authority to take full responsibility for energy resources at home and abroad, long-term and short-term....

...I see no evidence that the Irish engineering industry has its eye on this market.....Irish sea servicing could just as well be done from the other side. It is policy for the oil-companies to use local services once they know that they are available. The 'Aquatic Explorer' people based themselves at Cork because there they know how to service Caterpillar engines....

Professor Thomas Murphy, of the Institute of Advanced Studies, has been using, with hired vessels, techniques similar to those used by 'Aquatic Explorer' for some time, for the study of deep-crust geophysics from a fundamental point of view. Thus there are reserves of technological know-how in Ireland which can be mobilised to help pull in the necessary information from the survey records, in a manner such as to enable us as a nation to make a good bargain with the oil companies, and to remain basically in control of our own resources.

I doubt if Hunt International want this technology transfer to take place. They clearly do not like the Norwegian model, and say so.

The confining of the Cork trip to journalists, and the exclusion of the relevant specialists, may be taken as notice to this effect;it is up to the Government to read the message and take action.

Hunt part of a consortium of specialised oil firms, all of which are owned personally by the family of H L Hunt, who first struck oil in Texas in the 30s. The firm claims to be the largest independently-owned oil-producer in the world.

Hunt operates in the North Sea as Placid Oil Co; it has produced gas in both British and Dutch sectors.

Any find of economic size would be certain to leave Ireland in the position of being a net exporter of oil or gas.

July 4 1973

Shortly after my article on offshore oil in which I called for a responsible national authority, Marathon made their foray on to the Irish capital market. Informed people now regard offshore oil or gas as a certainty. Marathon are clearly banking on keeping national interest supressed by allowing the maximum opportunity for private interest.

Rentier-type interest is a sure guarantee of minimal job-generation. What is the Congress of Trade Unions doing? They ought to be sending their representatives to Norway to discover by what processes they did their deal and trained their people. All the indications are that there are no mysteries that a competent engineer could not pick up in six months.

I have a Norwegian reprint which outlines how they are going into offshore seismic prospecting in their own interest; the GECO group is now doing this and analysing the results on their own computer.

The way in which the Norwegian industry has reacted and adapted itself to the discovery of oil is there to be copied, provided the initiative is taken. Apparently the State will not do it, because there is no political pressure. Private interests will not do it, because they are content individually to be junior partners of the giants. Therefore there remains the prime body responsible for pressure for jobs in Ireland: the ICTU. If Congress were to act by sending a high-powered technically competent group to Norway, the State would, perhaps, be stimulated into action, even at this late date.

On the offshore services market there are indications that the Verolme dockyard in Cork is starting to be active. They have carried out some offshore marine engineering, such as living quarters and a helicopter landing structure for one of the Philips offshore oil units in the North Sea, and some submersible pontoons for Redpath Dorman Long (North Sea) ltd. They have also done some pipelaying barge hulls for IHC Guilo in Holland.

People in the industry seem dissatisfid with the way in which the university appointments officers appear to be unaware of the offshore industry as a place to steer graduates for the purpose of getting experience. If this were to become the practice....the Irish industry ..could get experienced staff if it wished to expand ..via the Department of Labour's register of skilled and qualified Irish people abroad who wish to return....

November 28 1973

A correspondent(5) with first-hand knowledge of the mining scene, derived from working in it, assures me that the idea that 'foreign know-how' is important in mining is pure myth.

He tells me that for every Canadian involved there are two Irishmen, and that the Irish are qualified and experienced in geology, engineering and general mining crafts, whereas the Canadians, on average, are 'chancing their arms' on the 'old-boy network'.

The validity of this worm's-eye view needs to be explored if a national policy on mining development is to be implemented. If it is true throughout the system, and not just a local aberration, the ball is at our feet nationally.

What is to stop a conference of Irish mining technologists being called under Trade Union auspices? Such a conference could advise the Government from a position of relative strength, enabling the bluff of the mining companies to be called. The implied threat behind the current negotiations is 'sign a lease on our terms or we close all mines and pull out'. This was what caused some misguided people from Tynagh(6) to demonstrate against Justin Keating's new tax policy(7).

The implications of what my correspondent says are clear: by all means let them pull out; we have the trained manpower and the resources to carry on.

The Resources Protection Campaign has developed from the Resources Study Group and is beginning to constitute a reasoned public pressure- group for independent State action. They are seeking to defend the existing State machinery, which hitherto has been allowed to rust. It is a broadly-based organisation of trade unionists, technologists, academics, students and others, which is seeking to press the Government to develop the employment potential of our mineral wealth.

Their policy is to call for the Navan rights to be vested in Mianrai Teo, and for immediate steps to establish a State smelting plant. With primarily Irish employees in mind, they urge that the qualified staff of the mining companies be given the option of transferring to Mianrai Teo. The Chairman is Dr David Neligan(8); a letter to him at 113 St Stephen's Green will elicit more information..... To date meetings have been held mainly on university campuses; this tactic ...runs the risk of of isolating the campaign with the label 'student radicalism'. There is, I understand, a Trade Union Support Group: this will have the job of convincing the miners currently employed that their jobs are not at risk if they join in pressing the Government.

December 12 1973

I have in the past been critical of the Coras Tractala journal 'Export' for (a) lack of recognition of technology or technology-content as an element in our national marketing strategy (b) lack of any visible editorial policy or theme. The current issue (Vol 7 no 3) moves in the direction of rectifying this with a series of three important articles and an editorial devoted to the question of offshore oil. (A conference on this topic is currently taking place, sponsored jointly by CTT, the IDA and the IIRS.....)

The articles are by Horace ('Dusty') Miller (Irish business and offshore oil), Fergus Cahill (Irish oil in a world context) and Richard Arnesen of the Stolt Nielsen Group (Offshore supply bases).

The latter represents, presumably, an incipient Norwegian link-up. This is to be welcomed, if it is any indication of a hardening of the Irish government attitude relative to the international oil companies (it is commonly conceded that the Norwegians did a much better national deal than did the British over the North Sea oil). According to Norwegian experience, to develop a supply-base for a long-term drilling operation involves investment of the order of 2M covering berthage, handling, storage and repair facilities.

Once oil is found, its rate of exploitation is subject to both political and economic factors. I quote Arnesen:'...before a country opens up its continental shelf for exploration and production activities....a complete and thorough national oil policy should be adopted.'

Thus it would be quite wrong for us to trade our long-term fuel reserves for a short-lived oil bonanza, during which all major world powers in disfavour with the Arabs combine to suck us dry. There is need for a long-term resource conservation policy.

Also, there is a need to make the maximum use of the shore-base development plus exploratory drilling period as a means of training Irish engineers in oil technology. I see no signs of any competent Irish authority organising to do this.

....Does the appearance of these articles in 'Export' constitute an indication that the Irish vision of the oil bonanza is a period during which a few Irish-based shore firms 'export to' the multinational oil corporations, viewed as an external system? In other words, that the claim to an independent national stake in the offshore oil industry has been quietly abandoned?

January 1/2 1974

I referred three weeks ago to a conference organised jointly by IIRS, CTT and IDA on the question of offshore oil and gas. This was referred to in the news columns contemporaneously, mainly from the angle of the investor.

A very approximate breakdown of the attendance was: State and local authorities 47, 3rd-level aducation 5, Irish-based firms 51, foreign firms with strong base in Ireland 37, foreign firms 17, norwegian 5.

The opening address was given by Thomas Egeberg, Director of the oil division of the Aker Group, Norway. He pointed out that both Ireland and Norway had small populations, long coastlines and long continental shelves. Neither was heavily industrialised, nor had they any previous connection with the oil industry. Norway had become, and Ireland would become, net exporters of energy in an energy-hungry world.

The technology involved, as well as seamanship, drilling and underwater skills. The people in Norway who had found it possible to get into the oil business were the ship-owners and the ship-building companies.

In Norway there was a big reserve of seamanship; Mr Egeberg paid us the compliment of assuring us that we had this also. This is true, though not widely known. Fergus Cahill, who spoke on the long-term consequences of off-shore oil (on behalf of the Technical Information Division of IIRS) seemed to be under the impression that our reserves of seamanship were in the fishing-boats, and mentioned the threat to our embryonic fishing industry.

In the ensuing discussion, Desmond Brannigan(9) pointed out that our national reserve of seamanship was in the British merchant fleet. This I am inclined to believe, having listened to the local lore in places like Crookhaven and Inishbofin. Typically, we turn a blind eye to the potential of our emigrants and have to be reminded of it by our foreign guests who have had the opportunity to observe it at work.

This holds not only for seamen, but also for petroleum and marine engineers.

To return to Thomas Egeberg: in his opening speech he pointed out the importance of getting national involvement in the shore base and supply industry. The key factor in the supply of oil drilling rigs was reliability and punctuality, for which the oil companies were prepared to pay.

The Aker Group is a consortium of about 30 companies, employing 10,000 people, spread up and down the Norwegian coast. It can be said that between the State and Irish-based private sector, plus a minority interest of foreign-based firms 'committed to growth in Ireland' (to borrow the IIRS cliche) there was on December 11-12 in the New Jury's Hotel comparable economic weight. All that is needed is some organising ability and technological confidence.

Dr Williams, of the Geological Survey, in his contribution exuded confidence in the future of the continental shelf as an oil source. He should know: he has access to all the prospecting records from the licencees.

In contrast, Fergus Cahill of the IIRS spoke of the social implications in the areas such as the West where the infrastructure is weak.

Let me sound a note of warning here: we are in a position of explosive development of interest in maritime affairs, which is going to influence profoundly the orientation of applied science and technology. In this explosive situation, whoever happens to be on the crest of the wave gets listened to. People who have been working away in obscurity for years, trying to get the Civil Service to take an independent look (for example) at the regulations governing coasters (like Dr de Courcey Ireland), or trying to get the State to survey the coastline (like Captain Connell) tend sometimes to get forgotten.

Fergus Cahill happened to be the one man in IIRS who had some maritime experience. He works in the Technical Information Division, and in this capacity has been in a position to collate a lot of other peoples' experience. He has done a good public relations job, but he is not in any sense a specialist who is on top of the theory and practice of marine technology, or off-shore oil technology for that matter, as he would be the first to admit.

The fact that a non-specialist was on the platform trying to present a facade of marine technology on behalf of IIRS is an indication of national weakness in this field. I am not knocking the existing efforts to arouse consciousness about offshore resources. I am, however, suggesting that there is a need to go about organising the experienced specialist talent, both at home and abroad, with some drive and determination.

The IDA appears to be approaching the offshore oil resources question by evaluating opportunities for existing manufacturers. Dr Peter Stuart ...outlined the method used: he broke down the expenditure into its elements until something was found which matched an existing productive potential. By this means, he estimated that about 15% of the expenditure on offshore oil development remained in the country.

This, I suggest, is a rather passive approach. A more active one would be for the State to establish a consortium charged actively with making things happen: repatriation of skilled manpower, establishment of design teams, organisation of working apprenticeships in Norwegian centres, establishment of an offshore oil orientation in the universities and colleges of technology. This consortium could be composed of all semi-state and private firms who have relevant capacity......

A final note of warning: unless the third-level education system starts now to orient a sizeable fraction of its output of scientists and engineers in the direction of marine and petroleum technologies, we as a nation will in five or ten years time be reduced to the role of spectators while a mobile population of expatriate petroleum specialists plunder our riches.

May 15 1974

Dr CJ Stillman's public lecture on Ireland's mineral resources on May 3 was widely reported in the national press. It is perhaps appropriate to add some points which came up in the discussion and which bear on the question of having an effective national-based centre of know-how.

For example, the Norwegians in the 1940s developed on a pilot scale the technology of extraction of the metals yttrium and niobium, of which they had substantial deposits, but for which there was then no demand.

When demand developed a decade later, they were able to come in early and get a top price. The principal value obtained was in the knowledge of the technology of refining the ore to get at the metal; this is indeed the case with most metals.

Dr Stillman's case was that rather than concentrating the argument around the case for national ownership of the mining leases, the key to future prosperity lay in State ownership and control of the refining technology.

It was also pointed out... that the present structure of the Geological Survey Office was unsatisfactory, the salaries being tied to Civil Service scales. There had been rapid recruitment in recent years of competent staff (although the numbers were still low compared to the UK; the degree of disparity pointed out in the recent critical article in 'Hibernia' was out by a factor of two. In other words, things are twice as bad as the 'Hibernia' critic makes out!). Staff however had been recruited near the top of the salary scale; when they reached the top there would be a strong incentive for them to leave and join the mining companies. In other words, the GSO is involuntarily acting as a training-ground in Irish geology on behalf of the mining multi-nationals.

There is therefore a strong argument for a degree of semi-state autonomy for the GSO, with control over salary structure. There is also a strong case for expanding the university and college of technology interest in economic geology and geophysics.

This brings me to the question of the interpretation of the records of the oil-prospecting survey-vessels. The analysed records are accumulating in the GSO, but geophysical expertise is lacking for their interpretation.. This was brought out in the Hibernia article, also. The block to recruitment, again, is the salary structure.

A seminar on April 23 in the TCD Mathematics Department by Dr JWJ Hoskin of British Petroleum attracted a distinguished audience representative of TCD, UCD, DIAS, UCC, IIRS, AFF, GSO and the Meteorological Office. The UCC representative was Professor CTJ Dillon, of the Nuclear Energy Board. There was also present a representative of a commercial systems analysis and computer software company, System Dynamics ltd, which is Irish owned and based.

Dr Hoskin outlined the mathematical procedures whereby the echoes from the detonations set off by a survey ship were unscrambled and used to build up a picture of the rock strata underlying the sea bed. The mathematics involved (the technical term is 'deconvolution') was well within the grasp of the audience, who subjected Dr Hoskin to a keen cross-examination.

It emerged subsequently that Dr Hoskin's role with BP was not actually to do the work, but to deal on behalf of the firm with specialist contractors who did the job, using special-purpose computers (ie with much of the programming in the form of hardware features, for maximum 'number-crunching' efficiency).

Thus, if the GSO wished to buy time on a survey-ship in the national interest, they would need initially to contract out the analysis, employing suitable high-powered staff to specify and monitor the jobs to be done by the analysis contractor. Again, the existing GSO structure renders this procedure more difficult than it need be.

There was clearly enough analytical ability in no 39 TCD on April 23 to build a thriving export industry in the analysis of survey-ship records, as well as doing our own. It is all a question of organisation and allocation of State is in the interpretation of the analysed records, now pouring into GSO, that more manpower is needed. The basic need is to buy in some top oil geophysicists, and to build up a training centre round them, so that the universities can begin to contribute some dedicated workers to this important field, instead of exporting theoretical physicists to the ivory towers of the US, and suchlike charitable activities.

August 28 1974

The Applied Mineralogy Group of the London Mineralogical Society, together with the Irish Geological Association, are holding a summer school on ore microscopy at the Regional College of Technology, Athlone, from September 2 to September 7. This is the tenth in a series of summer schools which have been held in various European countries. It is an international event, uniting specialists in a discipline which is available in very few universities, and consequently tends to be neglected in the geologists' training.

The optical identification of ores depends on subtle measurements of light reflected from carefully polished sections, viewed microscopically under carefully controlled conditions of illumination.

Athlone has been chosen because it is the principal centre in Ireland for practical aspects of mineralogy; it has a Mineral Sciences Section, which trains technicians to service all branches of the Irish mineral industry.

The instructors are all distinguished mineralogists from England, France and Germany. There are 20 students, from Ireland, England and Angola. There are observers from Australia, Canada and England.

The work consists of a morning lecture, followed by an afternoon practical, in which the students work in groups around a particular piece of specialist equipment. A single microscope equipped with photoelectric and electronic ancillaries can cost up to 10,000. The equipment is available on loan from the manufacturers.

There is a nominal fee of 7.50 for each student. The finance has come primarily from the mining industry, the largest stake being from Messina (Transvaal) Development Co ltd. There is a 'not immodest' grant from the Department of Industry and Commerce.

Thus far I am recording the facts, deadpan. I now permit myself one pointed question (which perhaps the Resources Protection Campaign might be interested in taking up): who is 'calling the shots' with regard to the question of ownership and intelligent control of Irish mineral resources, and the development of indigenous Irish mineral technology?

September 19 1974

...I sat in on one of the ore microscopy lectures and listened to a refreshing description of the implications of the Fresnel equation which links reflectance with the refractive indices of the substance and the medium in which it is immersed, and the absorbtion coefficient.

This is a fundamental equation which holds for all substances; it provides a satisfactory explanation of the colour and appearance of mineral substances when viewed under a microscope, including phenomena such as colour-changes as you rotate the microscope stage. The relative values of the refractive indices and absorbtion coefficients determine various rules of thumb which, until you go into the basics, look like a mess of exceptional cases.

The craft of ore microscopy has built itself up by the development of a range of specialist microscopes, equipped with monochromators, polarisers, rotating stages and digitalised photometric equipment, the whole system being adapted to the measurement of the parameters of the Fresnel equation when applied to specially-prepared samples of ore.

The impression I get is that here is a craft which has developed some 'mysteries' and which likes to think of itself as being esoteric. I feel that it should be well within the scope of a competent College of Technology or University physics laboratory to demystify this particular craft and to set up as an independent centre of development, including the design of improved versions of the equipment.....

October 23 1974

I listened with interest to Dr Kenneth Rosing at the first annual meeting of the Resources Protection Campaign. Dr Rosing's claim to fame is that he works with Professor Peter Odell, of the Netherlands Economic Research Institute, on the development of computer models as aids to the independent national evaluation of the development strategies of the oil companies.

Dr Rosing described a 'Monte Carlo' model of the yield from the North Sea oilfields, which developed the implications of the statistics of oil finds to date in terms of future finds and future yields.

This is not an esoteric technique; we have people who have been doing it for many years in a variety of applications. A decade ago in Aer Lingus we were doing 'Monte Carlo' traffic projections. The Foras Forbartha people are using the technique in urban planning models.

It would be quite feasible to apply such a technique to the Irish offshore oil situation and come up with a range of estimates.... One of the crucial parameters is the ratio of 'shows' to 'finds' for the particular geology and the particular method of search. My guess is that there is enough statistical material available from the holes drilled to date to enable a creditable effort to be made in evaluating the Irish offshore resources as Odell has done the North Sea. Dr Rosing, of course, has not done this; his work is only relevant in that it shows what can be done by an independent national agency.

I have to hand a communication from Dr Raymond Keary of UCG, who is a specialist in continental shelf geology. It is in the form of draft notes towards a review of the booklet 'The Great Irish Oil and Gas Robbery' published by Sinn Fein (Gardiner Place)(10). I quote Dr Keary: '...many who might otherwise study this very informative pamphlet will probably be put off when they see its source. This is a pity, because in spite of the many, possibly valid, criticisms concerning the style of the booklet, and various facts and figures which could be disputed.... the main message comes across loud and clear. The mineral resources of the country....are the property of the State.. It is the responsibility of the State to see to it that these resources are used to the maximum advantage of its citizens...'

Dr Keary goes on to support the clarifying contention that '....the value of a mineral resource should be calculated by subtracting the exploration, development and working costs from the value of the extracted minerals, instead of using ideas like 'profit' which can be manipulated.....these ideas are not as extreme as they may seem to be, if it is firmly kept in mind that the mineral resources (with very few exceptions) are the property of the State...'

Dr Keary however gets slightly cold feet over the proposition that the State should actually own and control the oil-wells. He finds the idea of the Minister being responsible for the investment of 200M hard to swallow..... It is, onthe other hand, apparently within the scope of a Minister to consider putting a great many of the ESB's eggs in one nuclear basket, to the tune of 150M. Is this not of the same order?

I can see that this debate is going to develop, and we will have to start using our native expertise to the full..... this commodity is not short; maybe it requires some re-training. A small group of competent people to work with Professor Odell, and another with the Norwegians, would come home knowing what to do...

May 25 1976

Thanks to Malcolm Farmer in UCD Mechanical Engineering Department, who has kindly supplied me with background material, I am now in a position to attempt for the lay reader a summary of a complex multi-choice situation (in smelter technology).

There are effectively three processes: the Imperial, the electrolytic and the KIVCET.

The Imperial process was developed at Avonmouth over a period starting in 1937 and coming to fruition in the Sixties. It is a development of the old retort process, with a trick added which successfully defeats the back-reaction problem. Zinc occurs as sulphide ore (ZnS); this is first oxidised to ZnO and SO2; the former is then reduced with coke giving Zn vapour and CO2 at about 1000 degrees C. The trouble is that if this cools slowly, the process reverses. The key trick in the Imperial process is to shock-cool the Zn vapour with a spray of molten lead, which brings down the Zn in solution. As the lead cools, the Zn comes out, floats on top and can be skimmed. The lead is then recycled.

This process has the advantage that it works for combined lead/zinc ores; there is no need to produce a pure zinc ore concentrate. If there is silver associated, this is also recoverable.

Names associated with the Imperial process are LJ Derham, SE Ward and John Lumsden. It is an elegant and economical process and has been increasing its market share rapidly (0.6% in 1959, 10.5% in 1968). It is especially competitive in situations where cheap hydro-electricity is not available.

The electrolytic process involves conversion to the chloride for subsequent electrolysis in molten form. It gives high purity directly; small production units are economic; there is high recovery; the plant is easy to operate and can be constructed with local raw materials and skills in developing countries. However if you count the investment in the electrical power source, the capital involved is some 1.36 times higher per unit of capacity than in the case of the Imperial process. (These are 1969 figures, derived from a UNIDO publication.)

Considering first these two processes, the latter is best for taking the cream of pure ore and heading for the top of the market for high- purity metal. The former is more sophisticated and more flexible; it will work for Zn/Pb/Cu complexes. The level of sophistication (I get the impression) is of the same order as that deployed by Irish chemical engineers in the existing State fertiliser factory (NET)(11).

We are not in an 'either/or' situation: it would be perfectly feasible to have a national smelter on the Imperial principle, sited so as to draw from all the mines in Ireland (bearing the need to import fuel) , as well as a small electrolytic unit to process the cream of the Tara output, which is very pure.

The existence of the former would enable the cut-off points of all the mines to be lowered, and the lives of the mines could be extended by good long-term management, concentration and blending.

The major weakness of both these processes, however, is that they depend on imported fuel.

In contrast, the KIVCET process (developed in the USSR), as well as being as flexible with regard to ore requirements as the Imperial, takes much of its required energy from the oxidation of the sulphur in the ore(12), with the addition of some fossil fuel, which can be low-grade. This trick is achieved by the use of oxygen, which is available now in bulk as a by-product of nitrogen production, there being a keen demand for the latter elsewhere(13).

The KIVCET process opens up the possibility of using the marginal Arigna deposits ('crow-coal'), thus realising an otherwise dubious asset, and cutting substantially our fuel import bill. (A spin-off would be the opening ip of the commercial use of the Shannon navigation....)

The KIVCET process can be evaluated for any given national situation, with independent assistance from UNIDO(14).

....Malcolm Farmer...has for some years been experimenting with smelting ores on a laboratory scale. With local low-grade fuel in mind, he has come up with what amounts to the KIVCET process philosophy, developed from his own independent angle....

In October of last year he asked the National Science Council for a small grant to help with this work. This was turned down in March of this year; it was stated......that '...the uncertainty over the types of smelter and nature of State participation prevailing at the time could have been a factor.'

It used to be my impression that the objective of an experiment was to reduce uncertainty. Now it seems we are only to be permitted to experiment when the uncertainty has already been reduced.

Malcolm Farmer's rejoinder was to set about organising a seminar, planned for October 4 in UCD, with IEI support. He has invited a paper from an NSC representative outlining the activities of that body ' stimulation of progress in exploitation of indigenous metal resources...'

I look forward to hearing that paper in the context of the UCD seminar. In the meantime, I am assured by the IDA that all options are open and the die is by no means cast.

I have noticed hints of the existence of some discreet pressure for an all-alectrolytic system from the ESB nuclear lobby. This opens up another side-issue of which space forbids discussion just now.


1. This group of student geologists and engineers arose in response to the perception of the developing 'rip-off' of Irish national resources by the multinational corporations. Among the prime movers was one Milo Rockett.

2. This is an oblique reference to the constitutional amendment introduced in May 1972 in a Referendum, and at the time of writing being discussed. When enacted it would enable any article of the Irish Constitution to be over-ridden by EEC legislation.

3. See Chapter 1.1, Note 19

4. Cork correspondent of the Irish Times

5. The correspondent asked to remain anonymous. He was working at the time for Mogul at Silvermines, Co Tipperary.

6. The management gave time off for the workers to come and demonstrate in Dublin.

7. The late introduction of tax on mining profits, after the mines had been creamed, rendered the run-down period more marginal than it would have been had a consistent policy been pursued over the lifetime of the mine.

8. Then an aspirant politician of the Labour left; he presided over a movement which was then in the process of degenerating, from its promising broad-based start, into a welter of competing left-wing groups. The analysis of this process would provide some useful insight into the pathology of the 'left' in Ireland.

9. Retired seamans union leader, then associated with the ICTU and with the Maritime Institute.

10. The long gap in the record may, perhaps, be attributed to the decline of the Resources Protection Campaign, as a result of its becoming a football for left-wing groupings; thus there was no specialist lobby beavering away to keep the matter in the public eye. The writer, not being a full-time investigative journalist, was regrettably not in a position to devote time to positive searching along the various trails suggested. This is now a matter for the historian.

11. The NET debacle of 1980/81 was compounded from bad strategic management and a difficult economic environment; the technical competence of the NET process engineers was never in question.

12. The resulting SO2 need not be an environmental problem; it can be neutralised with lime to produce gypsum, for which there is a demand in making plasterboard etc.

13. The overall economics of KIVCET, taking into account SO2 disposal and O2 supply, would have constituted the UNIDO process evaluation package.

14. There was subsequently (June 2) a letter from Paul Glynn (Arklow) questioning the Imperial process on the basis of the availability of metallurgical coke, and supporting the electrolytic process on environmental grounds. A reply by Malcolm Farmer (June 10) promoted the October UCD seminar and defended the Imperial process on the basis that the working lives of the mines could be extended if the smelter did not depend on the availability of top-grade ore, as at Navan. The writer attended the October seminar; there was a KIVCET presentation by a West German licencee. The writer refrained from writing it up in his column because he was making a bid to get to do the techno-economic analysis on behalf of a party potentially interested in KIVCET; this however never came to anything. Many questions remain unanswered about this mineral resources/smelter episode; they must be left to the historians in the long run, and possibly in the short run to those few hardy spirits still concerned with the techno-economics of Irish national independence.

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