Until now, geological information about the European subsurface has mostly remained confined to the Geological Survey Organizations of individual European countries. The GeoERA programme, led by TNO, is a first step towards making geological knowledge about our continent freely accessible and transnational. Within the programme, dozens of institutions from 31 countries are cooperating on geological research projects.
Without a comprehensive understanding of the European subsurface, the European Union’s key goals will be left hanging in mid-air. That is the abiding message following GeoERA’s kick-off. To outsiders that may have sounded a little far-fetched, until Mart van Bracht, Managing Director of Energy at TNO, showed everyone a diagram of all the resources found in the subsurface: gas, groundwater, subsurface heat sources, and geological sequestration sites for carbon dioxide. You can try to formulate a climate and energy policy without adequate data, information and knowledge on these elements, but you won’t get far.
However, it is not just a matter of knowing what can be found where. How do human interventions influence the subsurface environment? What impact could that have on our safety and health? Whether it concerns extraction from energy carriers or the application of new technologies for the sustainable use of natural resources and/or building in or on the ground, without knowledge and information about the subsurface, it is not possible to answer questions such as these.
A lack of clear information
Until now, this knowledge has mostly remained confined to the Geological Survey Organizations (GSOs) of individual European countries. As a result, it is difficult to obtain clear-cut geological information about the continent as a whole, says Dr van Bracht. “In the context of its energy policy, the European Commission wants to know how much gas we have in Europe, for example. However, no-one can answer this question, due to a lack of clear information.”
“The European Commission wants to know how much gas we have in Europe, for example. However, no-one can answer this question, due to a lack of clear information”
So it is high time that European countries started sharing geological knowledge and information with one another. At the initiative of EuroGeoSurveys (EGS), a European association of GSOs, 45 GSOs in 31 countries are now cooperating with one another within the framework of a single European Geological Service. In the future, Brussels will be able to use this service to obtain transnational geological information. The GeoERA programme is a first step towards the realization of this vision.
Fifteen different answers
Within GeoERA, researchers from all 31 participating countries are joining forces in collaborative research projects. They will exchange knowledge, information and data to arrive at new insights that have a transnational impact. Incidentally, that is easier said than done. A great deal of streamlining is still needed to make the sharing of information run more smoothly, explains EGS President, Teresa Ponce de Leão. “There are many differences between the organizations involved and the activities they perform. Due to these differences, in terms of size, objectives, methods and definitions, it is not always possible to harmonise the results. For example, in response to the question of how much aggregate Europe has available for construction, you get fifteen different answers.”
Teresa Ponce de Leão (EGS), Wolfgang Schneider (EC) and Mart van Bracht (TNO).
Free, commercial or strategic
In addition, geological information is not freely available in all countries, says Mart van Bracht. “Each individual country has its own policy in that area. In the Netherlands, this information is freely available online, to everyone, at www.dinoloket.nl. But in the UK, for example, many datasets are commercial products and you have to pay for them. Then there is Poland, where data of this kind is treated as ‘strategic’, which means that it is only available to the government.” The knowledge and information generated by GeoERA research projects will be made publicly available in the form of reports, recommendations, and freely accessible databases. GeoERA is also making a start on streamlining research agendas and research funding in various countries.
Taking advantage of differences
Prof. Ponce de Leão stresses that the differences between countries are not just obstacles that need to be eradicated. “We can also take advantage of those differences. For example, a country like Denmark has a great deal of knowledge about groundwater and the Netherlands about energy, while Finland has extensive expertise in the field of mineral deposits. We can show how cooperation at European level can help us achieve a better, more sustainable world. As scientists, we want to lead by example.”
“We can also take advantage of differences between countries. For example, Denmark has a great deal of knowledge about groundwater and the Netherlands about energy”
Hundreds of scientists and technicians are involved in the GeoERA programme. TNO has extensive experience in managing such major European programmes, which is why it is now the driving force behind GeoERA, and the programme coordinator. Dr van Bracht likes to compare the ultimate goal – a European Geological Service – with the construction of a huge international spaceship. “We are creating something that has never been attempted before,” he explains enthusiastically. “We take the knowledge, tools and programs contributed by our members, and blend them together to create something new. None of the participants could ever have achieved this on their own, much like building a spaceship.”
GeoERA: partnership involving 31 countries
Forty-five GSOs, from 31 European countries, are now involved in GeoERA. In the upcoming period, they will have an opportunity to submit research proposals. Each project must involve GSOs from at least three different countries. A total of 31.3 million euros has been allocated for this research. Of this, 21.3 million euros is from cooperation partners, and the European Commission is contributing an additional 10 million euros. If, four years from now, GeoERA has been a success, this will pave the way to more systemic support from the European Union.