Transition for North Sea Oil and Gas workers

Scot.E3 participated in the conference that the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union group held a conference on the 8th October 2022. This is an edited version of the contribution that Pete Cannell (from Scot.E3) made to the discussion at a session on transition for workers in carbon intensive industries.

Oil industry infrastructure at Montrose Harbour – image by Pete Cannell CC0 Public Domain

On Saturday 8th October, in response to questions about the Truss government’s plans to expedite the development of new oil and gas fields in the British sector of the North Sea, the UK’s new climate minister announced that increasing local production of oil and gas would be good for the environment.  The crudest kind of greenwashing, but nothing new.  Since the publication of the North Sea Transition deal in 2021 the aim has been to make the North Sea a net zero oil and gas basin.  An aim that depends on effective and total implementation of carbon capture and assumes, what even its advocates don’t believe, that carbon capture and storage can be 100% effective.

In response to a survey conducted by Platform in 2020 workers on the North Sea had a much more realistic view of the industry.  Very few were aware of the debates around Just Transition, but a big majority would like to move into new employment.  However, they identified serious barriers to moving into areas where their skills could be used and a lack of confidence that there are, or will be, jobs in renewables that they could move to.  

North Sea Oil and Gas has long been a trailblazer for many of the employment practices that characterise modern neoliberal economies.  In doing so the oil and gas companies have single-mindedly aimed at atomising the offshore workforce by forcing many workers to operate as contractors rather than employees, offering short-term contracts, blacklisting and driving down wages and conditions.  At the same time the companies have been happy to ride the waves of a highly volatile and highly profitable ‘market’, proclaimed the market price as sacrosanct and resisted regulation.  In the UK they’ve cashed in on a regime of relatively low taxation and high levels of state subsidy.  In an important report on the North Sea that was published on this website, tax expert Jean Carlos Boue shows that subsidies to oil and gas companies have exceeded what they paid in tax by £250 billion.  This bonanza will be hugely enhanced by the current government’s decision to allow them to continue to rake in megaprofits from the high market price of gas – a price that bears no relationship to the costs of production.

So Truss’s response to the cost of living crisis has been to double down on the so called energy security plan that the Tories published on the 6th April.  A plan that is shaped by, and completely aligned to the North Sea Transition deal.  More oil and gas, nuclear and hydrogen for heating.  This emphasis – particularly in terms of investment – in nuclear, hydrogen, oil, and gas – is a disaster for the climate.   It implies very high costs for energy – much higher than would be the case with renewables.   It’s also a disaster for jobs – preserving the status quo is the worst-case scenario.  Back in 2018 the Sea Change report showed that the more investment is shifted to renewables and oil and gas production is phased down the greater the number of jobs available in the energy supply sector.

But the North Sea Transition deal isn’t just a deal between the big oil and gas producers and the Westminster government – the Scottish government and the unions that organise offshore workers are also signed up to it.  There are welcome signs that the Scottish government would wish to pursue a different path, but it has yet to make a clean break.  The unions argue that they work with the oil industry to protect jobs – but the benefits from this partnership have all accrued to the industry not to the workers.  I’d argue that while energy policy and investment is guided by this agreement, and as long as unions are tied into this grotesque partnership, the ability of oil and gas workers to act in their own best interests will be severely constrained and there will be little chance that they will be convinced that a just transition is possible.  So, while we campaign to Stop Cambo, Rosebank, Jackdaw and all of the other new developments that are in the queue, we also need to highlight the rotten agreement that drives these developments, and campaign for the unions to end their partnership with fossil capital.  

This would be a bleak scenario were it not for the example being set as workers across multiple sectors are forced to protect themselves in the face of the cost-of-living crisis, by small groups of workers offshore taking unofficial action, and the continuing organisation of young people that time and again is taking the urgency of the need for transition back into their homes and communities. It’s a campaign that we can and must win.

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