Applied geological research has contributed to our country’s energy supply and infrastructure for almost two centuries. Since 1918, this has been performed systematically by (predecessors of) the Geological Survey of the Netherlands (GDN).

Soil science as a starting point for mapping

Soil scientist Winand Staring (1808-1877) took the initiative to map the soil of the Netherlands in 1833. He travelled the country himself and collaborated with a network of correspondents. In 1844, he published the first prelude of a soil map of the Netherlands at a scale of 1:800,000.

Staring was commissioned to elaborate his map in more detail. In 1867, he released the second version: 19 map sections at a scale of 1:200,000. The map showed soil types up to a depth of one metre. Winand Staring is considered the founder of soil science in the Netherlands.

Mining strengthens Dutch geology

From the 19th century, the government and scientists have worked together to find and produce coal as a fuel for Dutch households. Nationalising coal production allowed the Dutch government to actively engage in exploration in the south of our country. In 1887, rock salt was accidentally found in Overijssel. This marked the start of exploration in Gelderland and Overijssel to find this mineral, which was new to the Netherlands. Meanwhile, in the colonies, geoscientists, commissioned by the government, searched for valuable minerals.

To formally house all activities, the government established the National Mineral Exploration Service (ROD) in 1903. Willem van Waterschoot van der Gracht (1873-1943) became the director in 1906. In his 1917 final report, he published on geological structures such as the Peelhorst and the Roerdalslenk. This included writing about the presence of fractures in the Dutch subsurface for the first time.

Soft soils mapped to protect infrastructure

Van Waterschoot van der Gracht advised Water Minister Cornelis Lely (1854-1929) to transfer the work of ROD to a new National Geological Survey (RGD). As a hydraulic engineer, Lely knew the importance of knowledge of the subsurface for another reason: the risks of soft soil and flooding for Dutch infrastructure. In 1918, RGD, originally based in Haarlem, became a reality. Its first director was geologist Pieter Tesch (1879-1961).

Between 1925 and 1942, RGD, later to become the Geological Foundation, published regional geological maps of the Netherlands at a scale of 1:50,000. They show deposits from the Holocene and Upper Pleistocene. Added to each map is information on the classification and age of deposits and the presence of surface minerals. Tesch and his team drilled nine boreholes several metres deep on every square kilometre of our country.

Deep mapping for gas production

After World War II, the further spatial development of our country increased the need for knowledge about the subsurface. This resulted in a second series of regional maps, released between 1963 and 2000 and always accompanied by extensive explanatory notes. A programme to map the subsurface of the North Sea also started in 1968.

In 1959, the Groningen gas field was discovered, marking the start of deep subsurface exploration. The Geological Foundation (returning to its old name, the National Geological Survey from 1968) was able to make use of information collected by oil and gas companies through seismic and borehole measurements. In 1985, a programme started to map the Dutch subsurface up to a depth of 6,000 metres.

Alignment of geological research within GDN

To better align Dutch geological and groundwater research of the deep and shallow subsurface, RGD merged with TNO’s Groundwater Exploration Service, and was renamed the Netherlands Institute for Applied Geosciences (NITG-TNO, later TNO-NITG). The statutory tasks performed by TNO-NITG focused on mining, geo-energy, and groundwater, among other things. From 2011, the institute continued as TNO, and from 2018, as the Geological Survey of the Netherlands (GDN), part of TNO.

Within the Mining Act, the Geological Survey of the Netherlands (GDN) has a formal role in Dutch oil and gas production. In a four-way partnership, with industry as the executor of exploration and production, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy (EZK) as the client, the State Supervision of Mines as the regulator, the Geological Survey is responsible for receiving and making available subsurface information. That statutory task sets us apart from geological services in other countries. 

Role of the subsurface in the energy transition

Today, the role that the subsurface can play in the transition to sustainable energy is an increasingly important topic for GDN. We are researching the storage of sustainably produced gas and the production of geothermal energy. By combining knowledge of geology with modern techniques such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality, we can develop sophisticated 3D models of the deep subsurface. On top of this, our knowledge of the shallow subsurface contributes to climate mitigation and climate adaptation.