Exploring for the Future

Program Update 2016–2020

  • Exploring for the Future program – unlocking northern Australia’s natural resources

    Unlocking Australia’s mineral, energy, and groundwater potential is essential to drive economic growth, job creation, and ongoing infrastructure and community development. This is especially true for northern Australia, a largely underexplored region with untapped potential to support Australia’s resources, water, and agriculture sectors into the future.

    Recognising the need for new data to drive commercial investment and support government planning in the region, in 2016, the Australian Government committed more than $100 million to commence the Exploring for the Future program. Geoscience Australia, as the nation’s trusted advisor on geoscience, led the program with the aim to produce a targeted resource prospectus for northern Australia. The program involved the acquisition, processing and delivery of nationally significant pre-competitive data with the potential to identify the next major gas, mineral and water resources projects.

    As at July 2020, the program has delivered more than 250 new datasets and technical reports on geology and hydrology across northern Australia. These new datasets and knowledge are already delivering on their intended purpose, boosting confidence in commercial investment, lowering technical risk, and informing planning. New and substantial investments in mineral and petroleum exploration tenements, increased groundwater security for local communities and the agricultural sector, and the launch of a world-class data discovery portal are just some of the successes we’ve been able to achieve so far, with many more to come. An independent report (undertaken by ACIL Allen) looking at just three of the projects within the program has indicated potential economic benefits up to $2.5 billion or 56 times the amount invested.

    This program update captures the success of the program to date, and sets the foundation for ongoing discovery. It comes at an interesting time as COVID-19 changes the way government and industry function. The need for a pathway towards strong and ongoing economic growth has never been greater. The Exploring for the Future program’s focus on exploration and identifying new opportunities, and building commercial confidence and encouraging investment in northern Australia, is already generating industry investment and benefits to communities.

    The achievements identified in this program update are just the beginning. Based on the program’s success so far, the Australian Government committed an additional $125 million – bringing total investment to $225 million – to extend the program for a further 4 years (through to 2024) and expand exploration to cover all of Australia. This ongoing investment will be a key pillar in achieving the long-term reform agenda outlined in Australia’s National Resources Statement. Further, it will also be a key tool in accelerating our economic recovery following COVID-19.

    I commend this program update and the program’s findings to you and look forward to the discoveries and advancements we uncover over the next four years.

    Finally, I want to express my sincere thanks to the traditional owners, landholders, businesses and communities of northern Australia that have worked with Geoscience Australia to deliver this program. Its success could not have been achieved without your involvement.

    Hon Keith Pitt MP

    Hon Keith Pitt MP
    Minister for Resources and Northern Australia
    July 2020

  • The Exploring for the Future program is a superb example of how Geoscience Australia is achieving its mission to contribute to a safer, more prosperous, and well-informed Australia. The program has already contributed to several goals in Geoscience Australia’s Strategy 2028, and I am pleased to release this update on what it has achieved so far.

    I’m incredibly proud of the work we have undertaken so far as part of the program, all of it in collaboration with partners from across government and academia. We have harnessed our collective scientific skills and technical capabilities, drawing on Geoscience Australia’s more than 70 years’ worth of accumulated geological data and knowledge, and used new and innovative techniques to capture a wealth of new data and information. We have developed 250 datasets covering more than 3 million square kilometres, and this information is already driving increased investment and building confidence across the resources, mineral and agriculture sectors. This work is vital to delivering on the Australian National Resources Statement, will create jobs in some of Australia’s rural and most remote areas, and will help accelerate our economic recovery following on from COVID-19.

    I welcome the $125 million extension of the program and am excited to embark on the next four years of exploration and discovery.

    Dr James Johnson

    Dr James Johnson
    Chief Executive Officer, Geoscience Australia


Australia has a rich history in the exploration and development of resources. Discovery of new minerals, energy and groundwater resources is vital to supporting our economic growth, creating jobs and transitioning Australia to a low carbon future.

In 2016, Geoscience Australia, as the trusted source of information on Australia’s geology, commenced the Exploring for the Future program to better understand the potential for mineral, energy and groundwater resources across northern Australia. The $100 million, four-year program built on existing data, and employed new and innovative technologies and techniques to provide industry and communities with the information they need to confidently plan and invest in new developments.

The success of the program has led to it being extended and expanded by the Federal Government in June 2020. It has committed an additional $125 million (for a total investment of $225 million) to support Geoscience Australia to better understand the resource potential across the country.

What was the need?

Our minerals, energy and groundwater sectors are vital to our economic growth and support our transition to a low carbon future.

  • The minerals, energy and agriculture sectors contribute significantly to our economy. In 2018–19, they accounted for 11% of Australia's GDP, $330 billion of exports, and employed over half-a-million people.
  • Unlocking Australia’s mineral, energy and groundwater resource potential will drive economic growth, create jobs, and contribute to infrastructure and community development.
  • It is vital we maintain these sectors to secure our energy, water, and food needs, and provide the minerals necessary for a low-emissions, high-tech future.
  • Australia's current resource prosperity comes from discoveries and developments made decades ago in geologically well-known and well-explored areas. It can take 5–10 (or more) years for a new resource to go from discovery to development.
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There has never been a more important time to secure Australia’s economic growth and create new jobs. Historically, the resources, water and agriculture sectors have contributed significantly to both our economic prosperity and level of employment. In 2018–19, they accounted for 11% of Australia’s GDP, contributing $330 billion of export, were the country’s largest regional employers, and reported the highest proportion of Indigenous employees compared to any other employment sector in Australia. On top of all this, the sectors are vital to ensuring our energy, water and food needs are met, and to transitioning to a low-emissions, high-tech future.

Australia's current resource prosperity comes from discoveries and developments made decades ago in geologically well-known and well-explored areas. It can take anywhere from 5–10 (or more) years for a new resource to go from discovery to development. Geoscience Australia plays an important role in resource development by developing pre-competitive geoscience data to technically de-risk underexplored ‘greenfield’ areas and encouraging exploration investment.

Investment in exploration—supporting our future

Critical minerals will be essential to Australia’s advanced manufacturing and energy sectors. A single wind turbine requires 3–4 tonnes of copper. The batteries that store the energy generated by that turbine will be built with lithium and cobalt. The many devices we rely on every day—including the one you are on right now—consist of more than 20 metals. Australia can produce these materials to support our own domestic manufacturing sectors and continue to build our export market.

Water is crucial for Australian industries, particularly the agriculture industry. Australia is the driest inhabited continent, making water use and management a key challenge. Reliable water resources are critical for successful and healthy Australian communities, especially in remote areas. Most of the freshwater used across northern Australia comes from groundwater rather than from surface water sources.

In the last few decades, we have more than doubled our groundwater use. Today, groundwater accounts for around one third of Australia’s total water consumption. This need is only going to increase over time as we aim to build our industries, particularly in rural and remote Australia.

Energy—specifically, access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy—will be an ongoing need as we seek to warm or cool our homes, fuel our industries, and transition to a lower carbon economy. In future we will be supported by lower emissions energy sources, like natural gas, to balance energy demand and supply. Australia is the largest exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG), and the resource is one of our most significant export commodities. Australia is also embarking on a journey to become a major exporter of hydrogen by 2030.

Due to the complexity of this image and the niche scientific target audience, no alternative description has been provided. Please email Geoscience Australia at clientservices@ga.gov.au for an alternative description.

Elements widely used in energy pathways over time. (Source: Zepf V, Reller A, Rennie C, Ashfield M & Simmons J, BP (2014): Materials critical to the energy industry).

Looking to new regions—securing the pipeline

The benefits from resources that we see today are from investments and developments made decades ago. They come from well-known and well-explored areas of Australia. In fact, over 80% of Australia’s current mineral production comes from mines discovered before 1980, where resources are close to the surface.

In Australia, there is a huge, untapped opportunity in areas that are underexplored and unexplored, also known as ‘greenfield’ areas. This includes areas where resources may be buried deep in the ground—areas that span about 80% of Australia's landmass. The challenge is to see through the cover and map the structures and composition of the Earth, in the search for new mineral, energy and groundwater resources.

The Exploring for the Future program was designed to address this challenge. Drawing together data, science and innovative techniques and technology, the program has allowed us to identify a pipeline of exploration projects. This will in turn encourage new investment in greenfield areas by providing security and certainty to our minerals, energy and agriculture sectors about the resource potential. We have utilised the tools that ‘shine a light’ below the surface and into the Earth in innovative and unique ways to reveal new resource exploration and development opportunities.

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What did we do?

A total of 21 collaborative activities have mapped the geology of northern Australia covering over 3 million square kilometres—39% of Australia's landmass.

  • The Federal Government’s initial commitment of $100 million funded the commencement of the Exploring for the Future program. It was an investment in the exploration of new technology, science, and data to better understand northern Australia’s potential for mineral, energy and water resources.
  • Geoscience Australia’s world-class, trusted data and analysis capability brought together new thinking and innovative technologies and techniques to develop a holistic understanding of the resource potential.
  • Working with partners from across government and academia, we have mapped and analysed the surface, and probed deep into the Earth beneath northern Australia.
  • The result is new pre-competitive data and the knowledge to identify and develop the next generation of mineral, energy and groundwater projects.
  • The focus on cutting-edge technologies and techniques will provide us with tools for scientific exploration for decades to come.
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Due to the complexity of this image and the niche scientific target audience, no alternative description has been provided. Please email Geoscience Australia at clientservices@ga.gov.au for an alternative description.

A map of completed Exploring for the Future activities as at June 2020.

The Federal Government’s initial $100 million investment supported Geoscience Australia to commence the Exploring the Future program. The aim was to build a comprehensive picture, using new and existing data, of northern Australia’s resource potential. Doing so would give decision makers, explorers, investors and planners the information and tools needed to inform future decisions about investment and exploration.

In collaboration with community stakeholders and state and territory partners in government and academia, Geoscience Australia drew on its existing, world-class data and capability in capturing and analysing data, we undertook surveys spanning northern Australia, supplemented with new deep exploration in underexplored regions.

Looking at data and information in a holistic way, we were able to understand and map each layer of the Earth in a way never done before. We deliberately approached the challenge recognising that Australia’s geology and hydrogeology are complex and strongly interlinked. For instance, a small groundwater sample may contain traces of minerals or hydrocarbons from deep below the surface and the same tools used to search for minerals can also indicate the presence and quality of groundwater.

The results combine new scientific data and information with existing knowledge, to develop an improved understanding of the geology and hydrogeology of northern Australia from which we can identify and develop the next generation of mineral, energy and groundwater projects.

A holistic approach—combining the old and the new

Integrating data collected over the last 70 years with new data and information—captured in 250 data sets covering more than 3 million square kilometres—allowed us to develop a holistic understanding of the Earth beneath northern Australia.

We collected data using a wide range of cutting-edge techniques like airborne electromagnetic surveying—a non-invasive technique like taking a CT scan of the Earth. Surveying the land via a variety of methods from the ground and air, gave us a view of more than 3 million square kilometres, in layers down to 200 kilometres below the Earth’s surface. We analysed hundreds of rock, soil and water samples; measured signals from earthquakes and lightning strikes; and surveyed and mapped the land with aircraft and seismic trucks.

While each dataset we have collected is incredibly valuable, it is our analysis of the layers together and scientific synthesis that provides a step-change in our understanding of what’s happening below the ground and where potential new resource discoveries can be made.

Collaboration—exploring in partnership

Working in collaboration with a large range of stakeholders gave us unprecedented access to areas across northern Australia. Combined with our engagement with state and territory governments and academia, this has improved our ability to continue this type of work into the future.

Working with locals allowed us to tap into regional expertise and provided communities with opportunities to learn new skills. For example, our sample processing was conducted at temporary training operations, with facilities established in Alice Springs and Kununurra employing 13 Aboriginal trainees to process soil and drill core samples. Over the first four years, the Exploring for the Future program has contributed to 140 jobs in Australia.

Further reading

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What did we achieve?

We used world leading scientific skills and technical capability to capture and analyse a huge amount of data, leading to an unprecedented understanding of the Earth beneath northern Australia.

  • The Exploring for the Future program has been one of the largest and most complex geoscience programs in the world.
  • The program has harnessed Geoscience Australia’s considerable scientific skills and technical capabilities, augmented by more than 70 years’ worth of in-house data and samples, to deliver 250 data sets covering more than 3 million square kilometres.
  • Using cutting edge techniques and in-house analysis of existing and new samples, as well as the reprocessing of the old data and processing of new data, we can better understand the Earth beneath northern Australia.
  • The data is now publicly available through our digital catalogue and world-leading data discovery portal. The portal provides cutting-edge 3D visualisation and analytical tools to create maps that can support analysis and decision-making.
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The integration of datasets collected via a variety of techniques across such a large area represents a world first in geoscience programs.

Data collected over the last 70 years has been matched with new data captured from across northern Australia to develop 250 datasets covering more than 3 million square kilometres. Geoscience Australia has utilised considerable scientific skills and technical capabilities in geology, hydrogeology, geophysics, geochemistry, analysis and information technology, and transformed it into useful formats to provide a holistic picture of Australia’s minerals, energy, and groundwater resources.

What we know now—a world-leading view

The program has given us a world-first picture of our geology and hydrogeology of northern Australia. We have enhanced our understanding of mineral, energy and groundwater resources, and challenged how we look for them, and dramatically improved our techniques for capturing and analysing data. We have strengthened our collaborative partnerships with states, the Northern Territory, and domestic and international research partners, giving us a strong foundation to take forward future geoscience projects.

The information gathered throughout the program has been crucial in the development of the innovative online portal. The portal not only demonstrates our capability as a world leader in implementing science and innovation behind resource exploration, it also gives stakeholders the information they need to assess the mineral, energy and groundwater potential ultimately benefiting the community, regions and all Australians through development. We are effectively placing data directly into the hands of the people and providing explorers, investors, and planners with evidence to support their decisions, making a real difference to Australian communities.

Changing the way we understand groundwater

Groundwater research in northern Australia has traditionally relied on bores that date back to the 1950s and 60s. The information gathered from these bores has been used by scientists for decades to find potential aquifers.

Using data and research from the existing bores along with new groundwater samples and extensive airborne surveys we now have a more sophisticated understanding of how the groundwater flows and recharges across northern Australia. This has allowed us to identify potential new groundwater resources, assess groundwater storage options and provide baseline data to inform decisions on water management plans and environmental impact assessments.

The work shows the potential to challenge our current understanding, even in well-understood areas. By combining a range of datasets and new information about resources, new information about critical water systems can be revealed. Across the region, the integration of new and historical data has created essential information for communities, water agencies and resource companies as they plan drinking water for towns, water allocations for agriculture, and inform investment and development decisions of the mineral and energy resources.

The evidence from the program will continue to build our understanding of northern Australia’s groundwater resources for decades to come.

Due to the complexity of this image and the niche scientific target audience, no alternative description has been provided. Please email Geoscience Australia at clientservices@ga.gov.au for an alternative description.

A map showing locations where groundwater-related research projects were carried out, and new groundwater data collected, during the 2016-2020 phase of the EFTF program.

Exploring new areas for new energy sources

In the previously underexplored remote regions of the South Nicholson Basin, in Northern Territory and Queensland and the Canning Basin in Western Australia, we conducted large scale seismic surveys over 2784 kilometres. Using equipment to measure how vibrations travel through the Earth’s crust, we were able to create a picture of the rock layers 50 kilometres or more beneath the surface.

The results have been extremely important in understanding these regions and their potential for resource exploration. We have successfully:

  • identified new geological basins—layers of sedimentary rock that can accumulate organic material which through heat and pressure can become precious oil and gas resources
  • located and mapped previously unknown or unexplored geological structures
  • combined that data with chemical analysis of hundreds of rock samples to reveal layers and locations that are more likely than others to contain oil and gas systems.

The data gathered from this project has sparked significant investment from resources companies in the regions, including up to $95 million in investment from Santos Limited in the region of the newly-identified Carrara Sub-basin. The long-term impact of the discoveries will undoubtedly drive even greater development and economic opportunities in these regions.

Due to the complexity of this image and the niche scientific target audience, no alternative description has been provided. Please email Geoscience Australia at clientservices@ga.gov.au for an alternative description.

A gravity map showing the location of the South Nicholson Basin (white outline). The black lines represent seismic surveys completed in this region as part of the EFTF program, providing new data across the Northern Territory and Queensland border.

New discoveries in mineral systems—combining innovative techniques

The combination of innovative techniques has proven hugely successful in the search for minerals. Industry has responded well by adopting a number of the new techniques and tools discovered through the program.

We have used a wide range of scientific techniques at unprecedented scale and incorporated new and existing data from thousands of individual passive seismic, gravity and magnetotelluric stations to ‘look into’ the Earth deep beneath northern Australia. Each technique and activity alone can give us a wealth of information. Integrated together, these datasets provide powerful tools for predicting where resources may lie. They enable us to produce reliable, detailed data to encourage further exploration.

Key findings have included the discovery that 85% of global sediment hosted base metals (like copper, lead, and zinc) can be found along the edges of thick portions of tectonic plates. We have also identified highly conductive zones underlying the East Tennant region, potentially indicating areas where hot fluids travelled to the Earth’s surface, bringing minerals with them.

Tom Wesby, Generative Geologist at First Quantum Minerals Ltd., said of these discoveries ‘It’s useful for our terrane ranking, because it provides a good quality check on assumptions we had previously made about the likely foci of crustal deformation and longevity of crustal blocks’.

The wealth of new data collected during the program, augmented by existing in-house data and samples, has enabled us to build a range of powerful and innovative online tools. Through these tools we can put data into the hands of those who need it, whether to assess mineral or energy potential, groundwater, cover thickness, or the economic viability of potential exploration projects. These tools can be accessed via the EFTF online data discovery portal.

Due to the complexity of this image and the niche scientific target audience, no alternative description has been provided. Please email Geoscience Australia at clientservices@ga.gov.au for an alternative description.

A heat map showing areas with a high potential for holding sediment-hosted copper, zinc and lead deposits. This map is based on the discovery that all giant deposits of this type, in Australia and the world, are found above the edges of thick portions of tectonic plates.

Further reading





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What are the benefits?

Exploring for the Future is a world-leading program delivering public geoscientific data and the evidence required to attract future investment in resource exploration and development.

  • Since 2018, as a result of the program, a collective area of more than 80 000 square kilometres of exploration tenements between Tennant Creek and Mount Isa have seen new applications and new investment—that’s an area larger than Tasmania. This investment is in ‘greenfield’ areas that have previously had limited exploration.
  • An independent analysis of the program’s projected economic impacts from just three of the projects indicates returns from the potential discovery and development of new mineral and energy resources are estimated to range from $446 million to more than $2.5 billion.
  • The program has provided vital information to inform agricultural developments and increase the knowledge and understanding of our natural resources.
  • Delivery of the program has created jobs for contractors and small businesses in regional Australia—providing an immediate boost to regional economies.
  • We have inspired a new generation of data acquisition methods and innovative tools for data delivery placing Australia at the forefront of resources geoscience.
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Due to the complexity of this image and the niche scientific target audience, no alternative description has been provided. Please email Geoscience Australia at clientservices@ga.gov.au for an alternative description.

A map showing where new investment has occurred as a result of the EFTF program making new data available for industry use. Current as at June 2020.

The Exploring for the Future program has changed the way we understand the Earth beneath northern Australia, and will be key to delivering on the key purpose of the Australian National Resources Statement. The evidence gathered through the program is already translating into real impacts that build towards a smarter, more connected future. The findings have been able to significantly reduce the technical risk of exploration in underexplored areas and will ensure projects can plan for minimum impact on the environment and maximum return on investment.

This work will drive new infrastructure, create jobs, and build local economies to ensure the prosperity of future generations of Australians. The enhanced understanding of these resources also supports calls for infrastructure investment, including new ports and roads which will open more of inland Australia. An independent review conducted by ACIL Allen estimated the potential return on investment of just three of the projects could be between $446 million and $2.5 billion.

The benefits already realised

Providing both new data and findings to government, industry and communities has already led to improvements and investment in these regions.

Increased investment

Renewed investment in the region between Tennant Creek and Mount Isa represents the first of many investments in greenfield areas that have not been previously explored. The area has seen a 50% increase in the number of minerals exploration tenements, with 14 companies picking up new acreage in areas the program investigated. Ten of these companies have publicly attributed the programs data as key to applying for the acreage.

Stuart Rechner, Chairman of Strategic Energy Resources Ltd, a company who have used data from the program to inform investment in the East Tennant region, noted ‘mineral exploration in Australia is becoming harder with undiscovered mineral deposits almost certainly undercover. The market struggles to fund large-scale regional programs that open new exploration frontiers. Initiatives such as Exploring for the Future help address these challenges and are essential to encourage greenfields exploration in new terranes.’

Additionally, oil and gas company Santos Limited has invested up to $95 million to explore tenements in the South Nicholson region northwest of Mount Isa. The investment is a result of providing the information needed to better understand the region’s potential for energy exploration.

Santos Executive Vice President Exploration and New Ventures, Bill Ovenden, said ‘The South Nicholson Region represents one of the most exciting exploration opportunities in onshore Australia. It’s an underexplored region with the potential for material discoveries that could provide flexible and reliable gas for the NT and eastern and southern markets in the future.’

Mr Ovenden said ‘The release of pre-competitive geoscientific data by Geoscience Australia, the Northern Territory Geological Survey and the Geological Survey of Queensland supported our exploration model and suggested a potentially even greater upside, giving us the confidence to invest in the region. The opportunity for the discovery of a new oil and gas province to supply Australia is very exciting.’

In 2018, large multinational resources company Anglo American PLC returned to mineral exploration in Australia after a 12-year hiatus, taking up exploration tenements south of Mount Isa based on new data and scientific knowledge.

Dr Steven Micklethwaite, Discovery Manager for Australia at Anglo American, said ‘Projects like this were significant considerations in Anglo American’s decision to return to mineral exploration in Australia’.

Social impact

Groundwater assessment work is already leading to better outcomes for remote communities in the region between Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. New data is being used to plan new and sustainable water sources for those communities and is pointing to the prospect of new water sources for agriculture and horticulture in the regions.

Targeted investigation and analysis of groundwater potential was conducted across the Upper Burdekin region, west of Townsville. Combining new groundwater data with the existing understanding of surface water systems has led to better resource management and will inform decisions on future developments.

Further reading

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What comes next?

The program has been extended and expanded—it will now run to 2024, and additional funding has brought the total investment to $225 million.

  • The existing program has demonstrated immediate benefits, supporting job-creation and investment, particularly in regional economies.
  • The four year extension of the program will build on the current findings to provide consistent national coverage and expand the benefits to the southern Australia.
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The existing program has demonstrated immediate benefits and return on investment through job creation, new and expanded investment in the regions, and social impacts. The four year extension of the program will ensure that we have consistent national coverage and will expand the benefits to the southern Australia.

The extension of the program can support communities over the short, medium and long-term. Activities are delivered in the regional areas, creating immediate direct and indirect jobs in regional Australia. In the medium term, the program will facilitate exploration activities in these same communities, driving further job creation. In the longer term, development will lead to anchoring mines providing economic stability for regional communities into the future. Outcomes and findings will help strengthen Australia’s competitiveness in global resources further cementing our position as a leader in resources geoscience.

Further reading

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