Stopping Oil and Gas Part 2

The second contributor to the discussion at the Glasgow Scot.E3 meeting on phasing out North Sea Oil and Gas was Mike Downham on behalf of Scot.E3.  You can watch the video or read the text of Mike’s talk below.  (See the first contribution from Ryan Morrison here).

STOPPING NORTH SEA OIL AND GAS EXTRACTION   24.9.19

Thank you, Ryan, for giving us such a clear explanation of the Sea Change report. If some of you haven’t had a chance to read the report, I recommend that you do. It’s quite something. Not only is this new research a vital contribution to the Climate Crisis, but the report is unusually well-argued, well-written and well-illustrated. What’s more, it offers the reader three choices within the same download – a half-page outline, a seven-page summary, and a 62-page full version.

Fundamentally the report says four things:

  1. The quantity of oil and gas still available in the North Sea is huge, and to go on with the current Government and industry policy of extracting it indefinitely will lead to disaster levels of global warming.
  2. Shifting Scotland’s energy strategy to renewables is not only feasible but would create more than three times the number of current jobs in North Sea extraction.
  3. Here’s a roadmap of how to make this change, starting now.
  4. If we don’t start along that road now, escalating climate change will soon force governments to shut down extraction suddenly, with dire consequences for the 40,000 North Sea workers and their communities.

We chose the first word of the title of tonight’s meeting because ‘Stopping’ has two meanings. It can mean beginning to stop doing something, and Sea Change tells us exactly why and how this has to be done in the North Sea. But it can also mean stopping someone else from doing something. In the case of stopping North Sea oil and gas extraction the someone else we have to stop is the extraction corporations. These are giants – giants in terms of financial turnover, and in terms of profit. And because of the huge profitability they can see ahead, as reserves of oil and gas run down and demand gets stronger, they are literally hell-bent to get ahead of their competitors and extract every last drop.

These are the people we have to overcome. And we have no choice except to overcome them because they are responsible for a large proportion of the world’s carbon emissions. What they extract inevitably gets burned. ExxonMobil for example, just one of the giants, is responsible for carbon emissions equivalent to those produced by the whole of Germany.  (And, as an aside, to park for another meeting, these are one and the same people as those driving the case for the jargon-wrapped Bio-Energy-with-Carbon-Capture-and-Storage idea, which is nothing more than a huge scam and primarily an excuse to carry on extracting fossil fuels.)

It’s critical I think that we understand exactly what we’re up against. In a market economy based on the assumption that economic growth can continue indefinitely, money is power. Power flows from money in many ways, but the biggest of these is the stranglehold big companies have over national governments. All governments need capital for investment and economic development. When capital is privately owned, and once capital controls had been removed, as they were first in the US in 1974, then in the UK in 1979, and across the rest of Europe and Japan in the 80s, there has been nothing to stop companies moving out of one country into another where labour is cheaper, for example, or government subsidies bigger, or environmental regulation weaker. Large companies have been given the power to sanction government policy. No government can dare to challenge them for fear that they’ll take their money out of the country.

ScotE3 recognises the scale of the challenge to stop extraction, at the same time seeing it as an absolute necessity if we’re to limit global warming to a 1.5 degree rise. We see ourselves as a component of a movement which focusses on social justice and working class action, and we have a special interest in a just and rapid transition from North Sea oil and gas to renewables as Scotland’s exclusive source of energy. We gather and share information, hold public meetings and conferences, and support climate protests and campaigns wherever they emerge, most recently the student strikers and their worker and trade union supporters, Extinction Rebellion, Fife Ready for Renewal, and Friends of the Earth Scotland. You can see all this, as well as a draft manifesto, on the ScotE3 website – there should be a card on your seat giving the website address. Have a look if you can at the blog, and at some of the Briefings – for example Briefing 7 on fuel poverty in Scotland. If you’d like to join the ScotE3 mailing list, we’ll pass a sheet round later.

Interest in ScotE3’s contribution to the movement is growing fast this year, judging by numbers attending meetings and supporting protests, and by website hits. But for the movement to be able to stand up to and defeat the extraction corporations, it has to become very large – a mass movement across Scotland – and it has to be fronted by all those workers who are at risk of losing their North Sea jobs, standing in solidarity with the even larger number of workers who have already been pushed to the bottom of society with jobs that are underpaid, insecure and monotonous, and who struggle on a daily basis to keep their families housed, fed and warm. The power of this mass of workers lies in their ability to withdraw their labour and to bring Scotland’s economy to a stop. This power is even greater than the power of the extraction corporations. The giants can’t be stopped by appeals to reason and morality. Reason and morality have long-since ceased to have any part in their thinking. They can’t be stopped by the heroism of a small number of people – the truly heroic Greta Thunberg has always made this point. They can only be stopped by a vey large number of workers who are prepared to withdraw their labour. In the face of that, the corporations are powerless. And as we witnessed on Friday, when the school strikers mobilised an estimated four million people, the global mass movement, now crucially involving workers and unions, is growing fast.

How much can we expect from governments? This has always been a key question for movements aiming to bring about radical change, and it’s a key question now for the climate movement. Even governments seen at the time as left-wing have failed large movements in the past, most notoriously in Germany, when in 1914 the Social Democratic Government, despite massive popular protest, compromised and failed to take its opportunity to prevent the first world war. And the story of Allende’s government in Chile in1973 carries much the same general message. But could this Scottish Government be different? Could it come behind the things the Sea Change report recommends it should do? And could that Government act quickly enough in the context of the climate emergency?

On the same day the UK Prime Minister announced that parliament would be prorogued, it wasn’t much noticed that the Scottish Greens announced their radical proposals for a Green New Deal. They gave this summary of their proposals:

Scotland can

  • Redirect massive investment into low carbon industries
  • Grow a world-leading low carbon manufacturing sector
  • Restore our natural environment
  • Give everyone a warm home
  • And provide access to cheap, reliable and green transport.

But to do this we have to ditch neoliberal economics for good.

At the heart of a Scottish Green New Deal is a belief that the Scottish Government can and must take a direct role, working in partnership with citizens, communities, and companies to deliver the change Scotland and the planet so urgently needs

It would be nice to think that tomorrow, when the Scottish Parliament debates the final version of the Climate Bill, it will take notice of the Greens’ recommendations, take notice of the Sea Change report, and insert into the Bill a commitment to phase out North Sea oil and gas extraction, to do that rapidly and to start now.

But it’s highly unlikely the Government will do any such thing tomorrow, and highly likely that we’ll be left looking at a weak and ambiguous Bill based on long-term targets. Governments like long-term targets – they can get away with missing them.

There are three reasons that the Scottish Government is unlikely to commit to rapid phase-out of North Sea extraction. First, remember that business, particularly large business like the oil and gas extraction corporations, has a stranglehold on governments. If the Scottish Government committed to phasing out North Sea extraction quickly, the corporations would immediately withdraw their support for the Government and for the SNP – support which the Government can’t do without. The second reason, a reflexion of the first, is that the SNP remains committed to continuing economic growth, as made clear by their so-called Sustainable Growth Commission. The third reason is that only the UK Government has the power to stop North Sea extraction, because it issues the licenses for exploration and the permits for extraction. And it would be about as sound a bet as you could make that this UK Government won’t stop issuing the licences and permits in the foreseeable future.

So what are we to do? The Sea Change report is clear about this when it says: “We need a new approach to economic development, industrial policy and ownership, which emphasises local democracy and workforce participation.” Exactly. But I submit that we need also to get real and realise that we aren’t going to get this radical approach from the Scottish Government, nor the UK Government, nor from any government across the globe by reasoning with them, appealing to their morality, or being polite. After all, how long have governments been meeting at international COPS to reach agreement about actions against global warming, and what impact have those meetings had so far? The answers are 27 years and none. In fact, global carbon emissions have risen by an eyewatering 60% since those meetings began, and are still rising.

Does this mean we should turn our backs on the Scottish Government at this point? I suggest not. History shows us that making specific and feasible demands on governments, even if they take no notice, is a good strategy for growing the mass movement to the point where it realises it has to take power into its own hands. In Scotland at this particular point I suggest we could make three demands on the Government, if their Climate Bill turns out this week to be as inadequate as we expect. These demands are firmly based on the climate movement’s in-depth work over recent years. As well as being focussed and feasible, they directly address the current most desperate issues for millions of working people – fuel poverty, poverty in general, and jobs which are badly paid, insecure and unsatisfying.

We can demand:

  1. A just transition from North Sea oil and gas to renewable energy, starting immediately with the phasing out of North Sea oil and gas extraction, as recommended in the Sea Change report co-authored by Friends of the Earth Scotland, Oil Change International and Platform (2019).
  2. An immediate programme for the insulation and draught-proofing of all homes, public buildings and businesses, as recommended in the One Million Climate Jobs booklet produced by the Campaign Against Climate Change (2014).
  3. An immediate nationwide Free Public Transport system, as described and argued for by the Scottish Socialist Party since 2007, and now by the Scottish Greens (2019)

We will make it clear to the Scottish Government that we won’t take no for an answer, confident in the new-found strength and breadth of the global movement for democracy, as more and more people, after 40 miserable neoliberal years, seek to break with the Economy of Madness and with the Politics of Division. That movement has been boosted today by the UK Supreme Court ruling.

I want to end by arguing that Scotland has exceptional opportunities to make an immediate and significant contribution to the global climate crisis.

Scotland’s exceptional opportunities are technical, geographical and political.

Technically, the skills of North Sea extraction workers are largely those needed for the expansion and further development of renewables, and in the work to make all buildings across Scotland more energy efficient. The Sea Change report is strong on this point, providing a lot of new detail, effectively illustrated with diagrams, about how the various skills of North Sea workers overlap with the new skills needed. The report estimates that there is a significant skills-overlap for at least 68% of North Sea workers, probably more. This isn’t only about just transition for existing workers and their communities. The skills and experience of these workers are vitally necessary for rapid transition. If we had to recruit and train a whole new generation of workers, we’d miss the only window of opportunity to reduce emissions in time to limit global warming to a 1.5 degree rise.

Geographically, Scotland’s opportunities are huge. Its long, windy coastline, large tides, strong currents, Atlantic rollers and mountains favour between them off-shore wind, tidal, wave and hydro development.

Politically, Scotland has several characteristics which make radical change more possible. It’s a small country. It has an independence movement with a long history. And it has a very long history of protest against its exploitative southern neighbour – going back 800 years, from William Wallace to Robert the Bruce, to the Jacobite rising, to resisters of the Highland Clearances for agrarian capitalists, to the Clydeside Rising against grinding poverty under the heel of industrial capitalism in 1919 – a centenary celebrated vigorously this year by thousands. Under the heel of neoliberalism protest, especially strike, has been made more difficult, but how much longer will the people of Scotland put up with the dismissive disrespect of this UK Government?

You may be thinking that Scotland on its own can hardly have much impact on global emissions, and of course you’d be right. But another exceptional thing about Scotland is that internationalism is embedded in its culture. This goes back a long way too, but you only have to look at the EU referendum result to see that internationalism is still alive and well in Scotland. It can no longer be denied that Scotland has scandalously racist elements. But one of the most frequently brandished placards by the School Climate Strikers on Saturday in both Glasgow and Edinburgh proclaimed “Climate Refugees Are Welcome”. And last year Green MSP Ross Greer made a well-argued pitch for devolution of immigration and asylum powers, received well in Scotland, but not of course in Westminster.

In the context of its international reputation and relationships, if Scotland can stop North Sea oil and gas extraction, it could have a significant influence on governments and anti-fossil-fuel movements across the world as an example of what can be done

The 20th century Gallic poet Sorley MacLean predicted that Scotland would eventually rise in response to its centuries of oppression. In his poem The Cuillin, written in 1943, but not widely available in translation until the 70’s, he says:

Beyond the lochs

of the blood of the children

of men

Beyond the frailty of the plain

and the labour of the mountain

Beyond poverty,

consumption, fever, agony

Beyond hardship, wrong

tyranny, distress

Beyond misery, despair,

hatred, treachery

Beyond guilt and

defilement

Watchful, heroic,

the Cuillin is seen

rising on the other side of 

sorrow

Sorley MacLean’s life spanned most of the 20th century. In that century, we learned many things about how to change human society and about how not to change it. The biggest thing we learned was that only a mass democratic movement is capable of forcing radical change, and that because of their numbers, their ability to withdraw their labour collectively, and their commitment driven by daily hardship, the organised working-class majority plays the decisive role. With 540,000 members the Scottish Trade Unions Congress has embarked on work to chart a route to a carbon-free society while advancing workers’ interests. Can the Scottish TUC act as a meeting point for the forces of workers, students, greens, socialists and the Extinction Rebellion?

As we all know we have no time to lose. Naomi Klein gave a new twist to the urgency in her recent book On Fire. She says: “It just so happens that we are all alive at the last possible moment when changing course can mean saving lives on a truly unimaginable scale.”

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