Platform and Friends of the Earth Scotland are carrying out a survey to gather information on the effect of the oil crisis and COVID-19 on job security and work conditions and to understand how the campaign for a ‘Just Transition’ is perceived by oil and gas workers and what kinds of demands workers would like to see addressed by a transition to net-zero.
The survey is directed at people employed in
The oil and gas industry
The supply chain (such as aviation, transport, car manufacturing and service industries)
Public bodies, unions or community organisations who regularly interact with the oil and gas industry and supply chain
The economies of Norway and Scotland have both been shaped by 50 years of exploitation of North Sea oil and gas. Both countries have governments that talk about tackling the climate crisis while remaining wedded to the further extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea basin. There is however, a sharp divide between the two countries. After 50 years Norway has the biggest Sovereign wealth fund in the world. Scotland in contrast has no such fund and UK governments since the 70’s have pursued taxation policies that have resulted in massive net subsidies to the oil industry. Right now job losses are taking place in the Scottish sector as companies respond to the overproduction of oil and the drop in price – in the worst-case scenario this could mean (including the multiplier effect) up to a quarter of a million jobs lost in Scotland out of a total workforce of 2.6m.
On the 24th May we were fortunate to hear from Andreas Ytterstad who is part of the Norwegian Climate Jobs Campaign – Bridge to the Future. You can watch a video of Andreas’ introduction below. This was followed by a very lively discussion in the course of which participants shared questions, ideas and links to resources. It’s hard to do justice to such a rich discussion but in the rest of this post we have sketched a summary of the issues raised and included links to further reading and useful resources.
Summary of the discussion
Andreas and others argued that state intervention and public control is essential for just transition. The door we’ve been pushing against is now slightly open – for example the growing scepticism in the Finance Department of even the right-wing Norwegian Government about further investment in oil extraction. All governments are now under huge financial pressure from increased expenditure and reduced receipts in the Covid-19 pandemic. This is an entirely new situation – we can push for things we couldn’t realistically push for before. Oil companies have no interest in funding transition, especially as they are led by men coming to the end of their working lives, not up for taking risks.
There was a lot of discussion about Climate Jobs, what they are and their relative importance in the overall economy. Speakers noted the importance of studies by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign and the Green European Foundation in establishing a rigorous case for climate jobs. Andreas noted that even if the current target number is too small it could act as the battering ram to break through to State acceptance of Climate Jobs and Just Transition. He argued the need to win acceptance of the idea but that by itself it was insufficient. The campaign also requires the agency of workers as active participants to ensure that ideas become implemented. Offshore workers’ skills will be important in new housing, energy efficiency retrofit of buildings and public transport. We are going to need huge numbers of Climate Jobs across all sectors, not just the energy sector. An aerospace worker added that there is also huge need for Climate Jobs arising from redundancies in the Aerospace industry.
Andreas noted that regional variation is important in planning and achieving Just transition. It will be most difficult in communities, which have grown and are now entirely dependent on oil. Aberdeen is similar to Norwegian examples, but less remote and therefore more easily incorporated into a national plan. In the meantime we should support even defensive actions by these communities. One speaker noted that in England, Sheffield and County Durham for example, are both developing their own Climate Jobs / Just Transition plans. In both Norway and Scotland (and England) there’s potential for local and regional state authorities to join the Climate Jobs movement. There were questions and contributions on the role of local authorities from contributors in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
Other questions raised in discussion included:
How to fund the transition? Without a national investment bank how can manufacturing of renewables and other socially useful products for climate jobs be financed?
What are these green jobs?
Who will create them?
Who will fund these new jobs/businesses?
What is the response from Norwegian oil workers to transition jobs?
Will the jobs be from the private sector, or subsidised by national/regional governments, or state/regional publicly owned and financed? Responses to this included ‘That’s fundamental – I think the devil is not just in the detail of when or how much but also who will own it! In Aberdeen the oil and local political establishment have ignored and then when they had to, slowly started to talk about transition but mainly to manage it and make sure they were still in control of transition! What about pushing for transition without them in control? Where all could the money be taken from.’
James Masson is a university student who is also involved with environmental activism. Coming from the North East of Scotland Just Transition is of particular interest to him. We are really pleased that he’s given us permission to republish this article on Just Transition, which was written as a journalism project.
In recent years, climate change has become a key issue and we are only starting to realise the full impact that it could have on our lives. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth report stated in 2013 that they are 95% confident that climate change is being caused by humans burning greenhouse gases. More recently the UN Chief called climate change an existential threat to humanity. In light of the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is bad for the planet and therefore all life on Earth it seems obvious to suggest we stop burning fossil fuels, and of course we should. However, we cannot forget about all the jobs and money tied up in the fossil fuel industry.
The North East of Scotland is a region that depends upon the oil and gas sector for much of its wealth. Scottish government stats show that in 2019 the oil and gas sector accounts for £16.2 billion or 9% or Scotland’s economy. The high concentration of fossil fuel jobs within the North East has meant that the employment rate in Aberdeenshire, in 2018, was 82.3% compared to the UK average of 74.8%.
The North East relies heavily on the existence of the oil and gas sector for its prosperity and therefore we must replace the oil and gas industry with an equally strong industry that will mean the local area isn’t hurt economically. This is a concept that is referred to as a just transition. The aim of a just transition is to ensure that communities reliant on fossil fuel industries are not economically disadvantaged when moving away from fossil fuels and are provided with opportunities to grow economically in other sectors, namely the renewable industry.
If we want to avoid the worst consequences of climate change a just transition needs to happen very soon. Scotland just like the rest of the world is warming at an alarming rate.
At the same time as making some workers redundant, oil and gas companies have continued to operate rigs on a three weeks on three weeks off pattern. In ‘No Market Solution’, posted on this blog yesterday, Neil Rothnie asks a critical question about the safety of the workforce. He queries whether at a time of global oil glut this is really essential work and whether it can possibly be safe
Who knows how effective this [testing] is, or whether the infection is spiraling offshore only to come home with these guys at the end of their trip? Are all the companies quarantining all outward and inward bound workers? Are they testing everyone every day? Otherwise what possible precautions could be put in place to get workers offshore via helicopter to work eat and sleep (sometimes in shared cabins) cheek by jowl in an atmosphere of endlessly recycled air?
One of the tragic lessons we’ve learnt from Covid-19 is that concentrations of people in enclosed environments are horribly vulnerable to a highly infectious virus. Too late in the day the consequences of not protecting elderly and vulnerable people and care workers living and working in care homes have come to the fore in public debate. After initial publicity the plight of 100,000 workers who are still trapped on cruise ships around the world has been largely ignored. According to the Guardian newspaper at least fifty of the ships have Covid-19 infections spreading onboard while the workers are shut out of ports and unable to return to their homes.
In this context we need a public debate and rapid action to protect the lives of the North Sea workforce. It’s clear that the industry is not putting safety first – at a time of crisis they are making the workforce pay the price through redundancies and unacceptable risks to their lives, while at the same time continuing to pay out massive dividends to share holders.
Protect the workers now
Shut down offshore production and development until there is a clear case that it’s safe to resume. Ensure that livelihoods are protected.
Protect the workers in the future
Organise for a rapid, planned just transition out of hydrocarbons and into a new sustainable economy.
Neil Rothnie spent his working life on the North Sea oilrigs. In this post he looks at Covid-19 and the slump in oil process and how oil workers pay the price for the super profits stolen by the oil companies.
COVID19 exposes that there are no “market” solutions to the real problems that face us. In fact the, “neo-liberal” market-led society has left us with a precarious health service which has all but had to shut down looking after the health of the majority of people just to be able to cope with this virus. And it’s left us with insufficient resources in the form of testing kits and PPE and ventilators. The market can’t lead us out of this COVID19 emergency (no one is even making this claim) neither will it be able to lead us out of global warming and the developing climate emergency. When the oil & gas industry says that it is the solution to global warming it’s lying. Their plan is business as usual – produce every drop that can be economically produced from the North Sea and (presumably) worldwide. Greed, private property and getting rich drive the oil industry. Co-operation, the recognition of the crucial role of key workers, an end to poverty homelessness and the provision of basic necessities to all has to be the response to COVID19. No going back to the days when our “heroes” will once again be the “celebrities” that stand in for and apologise for the filthy rich. Our heroes are health and care workers, supermarket and delivery workers. Let’s make sure it stays that way.
Under conditions of this Covid19 pandemic, the exploitation of the workforce has taken on a more overt and sinister form, where workers are herded offshore under conditions where it is impossible to maintain social distancing. Only a virtual news blackout has allowed employers to try and mitigate the risks (to their reputations) by jumping the queue being formed by health and care workers, and privately organising COVID19 testing for oil & gas workers going offshore. Who knows how effective this is, or whether the infection is spiraling offshore only to come home with these guys at the end of their trip? Are all the companies quarantining all outward and inward bound workers? Are they testing everyone every day? Otherwise what possible precautions could be put in place to get workers offshore via helicopter to work eat and sleep (sometimes in shared cabins) cheek by jowl in an atmosphere of endlessly recycled air?
Belatedly the industry have organised their own “testing” regimes but are still capable of fucking that up by sending guys offshore before results are in and have, in at least one case, ended up sending one guy out who had tested positive to the virus and then disallowed his fellow passengers from self-isolating.
The testing of oil & gas workers for COVID19 before many health services and care workers could get tests, needs I think to be challenged. It’s not on as far as I’m concerned. How essential are oil & gas workers during a pandemic and a global glut of oil? Even a 10% cut in global production isn’t enough to artificially hike the prices that we ultimately pay to levels where the rich can continue to get their “dividends”. Many of these workers, far from being “key” workers have turned out to not even be essential to the industry. The industry is sacking workers en mass in the midst of a social crisis that we’re all supposed to be in together. What bollocks!
Oil that workers have sweated and risked life and limb to produce is trading at negative prices in a market that’s driven by greed and geopolitics and periodically crashes. Where the workers pay with their jobs, again and again? An industry that cannot learn the lessons of the periodic disaster and near-disasters and must be very close to another. What kind of life is that for the workforce? And all this from the industry that threatens an existential crisis for people and nature.
If the employers can’t/won’t furlough their workers, then the Government should step in and do so directly. If the Government won’t do it they should come out and explain why.
At every opportunity, and to get out of the holes they’ve dug themselves into, the industry periodically drives up exploitation by driving down wages and increasing offshore work periods. Dumping whole swathes of the workforce is the traditional method of achieving this. We’re well into the latest phase of this with another 30,000 UK job losses predicted on top of the steady stream of redundancies already underway.
We need to go for the industry by the throat and break this unholy alliance that exists between them and the Government and in which the trade unions have been willing participants or “partners” in sweetheart agreements. The media has largely failed to be anything more than a propaganda mouthpiece.
Should we not shut-in oil production, furlough the workers and use up the global glut if need be. Is this not the time to start offering oil & gas workers the chance to retrain for the renewables sector (or for whatever they want) and escape the ongoing nightmare of an industry that is an eater of men and women and a threat to our very existence?
The coal miners, their families and communities were fucked-off in the last energy transition. Oil & gas workers will get the same treatment if they stand by and let it happen this time.
Taking a battering. Will North Sea oil withstand the coming Covid-19, world recession and Climate change storms?
For over 40 years the North Sea oil and gas industry has been hailed as Scotland’s economic and industrial crowning glory. But economic dips and global price wars have seen the industry drop in both output and workforce over the past decade. And now, the most-deadly of confluences- a Coronavirus pandemic, a global economic recession and a rapidly closing climate crisis- confront the industry with its hastened demise.
In this brief paper we examine the closing economic vice on the industry- a crashing oil price against a sudden and historic decline in petroleum demand- as well as the realities of the urgent need to cut and eliminate carbon emissions in order to offset an impending environmental catastrophe.
But here we will argue that rather than crises spelling the death-knell for workers and their communities, new industries requiring new skills and more jobs should emerge via a Just Transition that can offer workers, their families and communities hope for a secure, bright and clean future.
In his Black Gold Charles More dates the origins of the UK’s North Sea industry to a day in the early 1960’s when a Dutch family’s garden caught fire. Initially investigating for wartime explosives, the authorities eventually discovered that the fire was from an out-burst of gas from hydrocarbon bearing seams that ran west out to the North Sea- towards the UK. Initially, interest in North Sea hydrocarbons was restricted to natural gas- as a cheaper and cleaner option to town coking-oven gas- but with the founding of a Department of Energy with a sovereign security of supply remit, oil, which was found in equally abundant reserves, became a growing area of interest.
Then following a humbling miners’ strike in 1972, followed by the Yom Kippur war and subsequent OPEC oil embargo and price shock, gears were shifted to put UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) oil production (and nuclear power)- on high priority as energy security hedges. Subsequently a Labour government priority became the setting up of a British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) alongside a similar gas enterprise- British Gas, to ensure the fullest exploration and extraction of North Sea assets.
In late February Scot.E3 released a hitherto unpublished paper which in great detail explained how an intricate range of taxation vehicles and regulations had encouraged oil companies into the North Sea basin by ensuring that blocs would be virtually given away by the device of zero-valuing proven oil and gas deposits whilst also ensuring that capitalisation would be subsidised, investment risk deferred to the tax payer- along with future decommissioning liabilities.
The exploitation of offshore oil resources however, failed to realise any power-generation security of supply in that the oil from the first drillings (Aramco Montrose field developed 1967, BP Forties field developed 1969 and the huge Shell Brent field developed 1971-76) all proved to have oil totally unsuitable for burning in power stations. But nevertheless, UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) oil was able to provide up to 70% of crude for the purpose of refining into transport fuels. But the reserves were substantial.
And overnight the east of Scotland ports were transformed into oil and gas bonanza towns. Texans, Uzbekis and Arabs with exploration drilling skills flocked in- to be followed by newly recruited oil and gas workers with substantial numbers from the declining Scottish shipbuilding industry. And here it is worth noting that at its peak at the time of the millennium, total UKCS employment was around 600,000.
For Scotland, the offshore waters that proved to be the most fruitful were in the Central North Sea sector where at its peak, over 50% of all N Sea offshore activity took place- the more remote North N Sea and West of Scotland sectors being later in development. And with continued tension between the big OPEC producers and the ‘west’, up until the early 2000’s the UK Continental Shelf resource looked certain for continuous development- albeit on a slight declining output expectation.
DECLINE AND FALL
Oil, and to a lesser extent, natural gas, is the most necessary commodity on the world market. It is also the most precarious and volatile. Slight fluctuations in global growth, political tensions, commodity markets speculation- and more lately, growing environmental concerns, all influence a vast capital intensive and continually technologically evolving industry.
So with these factors in mind we have to then consider the status of the UKCS oil business as both marginal- in terms of total resource strength- as well in terms of exploration, development and extraction costs. Hence the tax and subsidy fiscal environment that the industry has enjoyed under successive UK governments since 1970 as explained by Juan Carlos Boue. But with a vastly expanding global hydrocarbon resource base, it was inevitable that a tendency to over-production would lead to a continued trend of downward prices- a trend that the high cost UK oil business would find impossible to compete under.
Wars are good for oil- particularly wars in the Middle East global energy hub. So some 20 years of Iraq-Iran, the US/UK- Iraq conflict has been good. But in 2014, OPEC led by Saudi Arabia started an over-production war in order to kill off the burgeoning US shale oil industry- which it virtually did by driving oil prices at one point down to $14 per barrel- only to be followed by an oil price 6 month long depression of a price at around $35-40 per barrel. And it is this historical juncture of 2014 that has since cast a shadow on the future of the UK oil and gas industry.
So it is 2014 we should use as the pivotal point where we see the immediate loss of 75,000 offshore and onshore support jobs, after which there is a marked decline in both employment and investment- as well as a weakening of world oil prices alongside a further expansion in marginal cost producers entering the market. By 2015 total N Sea related job losses were put at 185,000.
UKCS Report Sept 2019
The balance of offshore UKCS jobs is elsewhere in the Irish sea and West of Shetland.
The oil price recovery since mid-2014 has been patchy but generally upwards. Contract prices have on occasion held at around $100 per barrel, although more recently, $85 pb has tended to be the average price which has been sufficient to maintain global output at a growing over-capacity level. Once again OPEC has attempted to control over-capacity by throttling out-put in a bid to kill off the higher cost and marginal cost fields. In this endeavour, they have sought the cooperation from Russia- a joint venture that although unstable, was able to drive down prices from the $65 pb at which 2020 opened.
But 2020 opened with the signs of a global economic recession. And now the Covid-19 pandemic.
PRICE CRASH…AND GOING DOWN
2020 began with oil prices at around $65 per barrel- which for most N Sea production requiring a $40-50 as a ‘comfort zone’- looked set to ensure a good rate of return on the more ‘mature’ N Sea infrastructure. Output from the N Sea is divided into two grades; Brent and N Sea Light crude. The Brent grade due to its viscosity and chemical content characteristics is a ‘premium marker’ grade, which along with West Texas Intermediate (WTI) provides the benchmark prices by which world traded oil prices are measured.
By early February 2020 the international oil markets had come to realise that a forthcoming pandemic was about to hit an already faltering global economy- and this, combined with the OPEC-Russia oil price tussle- was about to have a massive impact on the future of whole sections of the oil industry- let alone immediate oil prices.
By mid-February N Sea oil and gas prices were ($ per barrel or unit):
N Sea Light 25.76
Natural gas 1.484
Then by 17th March (at which NYMEX trading was suspended) prices were:
N Sea Light 18.27
And of 20th April:
N Sea Light 15.05
These prices are subject to speculative swings and as such give no certainty to which point the oil and gas prices will level out. But with world oil and petroleum products storage at about 98%, there is clearly little- if any room- left for further production above what is an already collapsing rate of consumption. And it is also clear that world prices for the foreseeable future are likely to remain well below the cost of N Sea production.
But by the morning of 21st April the Financial Times, in a departure from its usual austere and responsible mode, was in full panic flight with a front page screaming about how for the first time ever the commodity markets had turned negative. Overnight the price of premium grade crude oil had been trading at minus $40 dollars per barrel. And elsewhere analysts were suggesting a possible market intervention by producers and traders alike where for the foreseeable future oil has a traded ‘floor’ where a demand-led ‘swing’ of between $10-20 per barrel would be permitted.
However, such a ‘swing price’ would eliminate the higher cost producers such as the US shale sector, the Canadian tar sands, about 35% of OPEC members- and with certainty- the entire North Sea operation. But in the first stage of the crisis many big drilling and appraisal contractors are already cutting back on their operations with some 40% of forward investment cut overnight and hundreds of workers sacked under force majeure terms with neither redundancy pay nor furloughing support.
If we look at the employment profile of Scottish workers engaged in N sea oil and gas we find around 110,100 overall in the direct production sector. And if we then factor in a c.£45,000 per capita annual income, this translates into £4.95 billion in total earnings of which some c.£3 billion constitutes disposable income into the regional economy per year.
If we look at recent job loss events in the Scottish economy (going back some 30 years) we find that losses in coal up to 2000 were 10,100 and steel (Ravenscraig) 14,000, pale by comparison to what could happen in oil and gas losses. By any measure the present situation represents a schism from which point the status quo is irrecoverable. The terminal collapse of UK oil and gas is now a possibility, which for Scotland would be an economic catastrophe.
Oil has no cover of long-term contracts. It is a Just-In-Time commodity which in the past has been robust enough to weather any market storms. But as Goldman Sachs have reported, the free market advocates of the US oil business have just issued an emergency appeal to the Federal Reserve for a $600 billion bail-out. And at the same time Brent has been trading at a mere $21.54 with its sister marker grade, West Texas Intermediate at $14.85- and falling.
The International Energy Agency now reckons that over 1 million oil and gas jobs will go by the second quarter end of 2020.And if it comes to screwing more effort and more oil out of the workforce- then forget it. Since April 2014 to January 2020 North Sea oil workers have contributed to a 16% increase in annual productivity from an offshore workforce cut of 38%. Furthermore, almost punitive working conditions of 17-hour shift on a 7-day week, with a three week onshore/offshore regime have been imposed- what some workers have suspected as being ideal conditions for the cultivation and transmission of the Covid-19 Coronavirus.
The confluence of the Covid-19 pandemic, a protracted global recession and a mounting antipathy to hydrocarbons in what is now widely perceived to be a growing climate crisis make any return to an oil and gas status quo inconceivable. And from this a North Sea high cost marginal offshore industry faces a bleak future. But the principal asset of that industry- its workforce could be easily redirected to a green economy urgently in need of a growing renewable infrastructure.
The North Sea workforce embraces a wide range of skills only found in the most modern production processes of construction, shipbuilding, aerospace and chemical engineering. This young workforce- average age 34 years- could easily be set to task in a new vertically integrated renewables industry where point of power production to plug via a publically owned and accountable energy company could provide Scotland with a secure, safe, secure and equitable future. For that, a Just Transition is crying out.
Brian Parkin 22nd April 2020.
Goldman Sachs. Financial Times, 22nd April 2020
IEA. Energy trends April 2020.
Oilprice daily bulletin quoting Bloomberg, New York 20th April 2020.
Charles More Black Gold: Britain and Oil in the 20th century. Bloomsbury, London 2011.
The impact of the pandemic on the oil and gas industry is huge and we will be looking at this in a forthcoming post. Here retired oil worker Neil Rothnie looks at the health and safety issues for workers on the North Sea rigs which remain in production.
It’s not clear from the article whether swab testing is already underway, but the RMT trade union seems to have talked to one company in Aberdeen that is involved in the venture. In the “deal” maritime operations employers either have or will be able soon, to mobilise workers who test as “clear” to crew their vessels without fear that anyone is being sent offshore with the virus. It doesn’t look like testing has reached other categories of oil & gas workers.
Judging by daily Government briefings on the crisis, the issue of testing is a hot potato, with health workers very unhappy that, at least up until Thursday, April 2, when this article appeared, there had been virtually no testing of health workers. Front line NHS staff don’t know whether they are infected or immune when they treat patients or when they go home to their families. Similarly, those self-isolating because family members have shown symptoms don’t know whether they can get back to the front line.
This news from the North Sea begs the question of whether oil & gas workers are more “essential” than doctors nurses and all the other categories of hospital workers and should be prioritised for testing? This is quite possibly the case. Who would presume to judge the issue? It’s easy to see the possibility that if the lights (and the ventilators) went out, even heroics from the NHS workforce would be of little avail in the face of this ongoing emergency. Is this the case? Oil & gas workers it seems are being informed by letter that they are “key” workers.
Energy Voice and Jake Molloy of RMT can only be congratulated for bringing this issue out into the open. Because what certainly wouldn’t be acceptable is if testing of one or other section of the workforce went ahead under the radar and without public scrutiny. Talking about what would seem to be a different test altogether, Mr Molloy said 7000 antibody tests have also been purchased to build up a picture of which workers have had Covid-19 and track workers’ progress, and he added that the priority for the kits “100% has to be National Health Service (NHS) workers”. Mr Molloy said: “If it’s a question of who’s getting it first, then it’s no question that the NHS is getting it first. This does sound like his union RMT will have some role in making this decision. But there seems to be some confusion as to whether these kits are available to the industry yet or whether they still have to be purchased.
There needs to be some clarity from the Government and the industry, not least because according to the experts, and the Government, the co-operation of the whole of society is required if there is to be an outcome that doesn’t crash the NHS and lead to many avoidable deaths. So it should not be controversial to suggest that no single section of industry, however important, should be allowed to make its own arrangements as though it operated on a different planet to the one where the rest of us live and die.
The other valuable service this article has done is bring to public attention just what conditions exist in the industry and which mitigate against containing the pandemic. Jake Molloy, in the article, points out that if care is not taken, “every single installation or vessel out in the North Sea is another Diamond Princess”. This is the cruise liner where 634 (17%) of the 3711 passengers and crew were found to have contracted Covid 19 after it had been detected in a former passenger. 328 of those who tested positive showed no symptoms. Jake Molloy thinks that Covid-19 testing kits are essential to halt any major outbreak on an offshore installation or vessel – given the nature of confined helicopter travel and cabin sharing in the North Sea.
The impossibility of social distancing en route to and onboard oil & gas installations, surely makes transmission of the virus inevitable. What policy will apply to workers returning from installations where outbreaks occur? The industry is talking about dedicated hotels in Aberdeen to isolate infected workers when they return ashore. Till they recover or die? There’s mention of taxi companies prepared to take returning workers (presumably those either ill or presenting symptoms) home anywhere in the country. To die at home? To spread the infection to families and possibly further?
At least one oil worker has died on returning from offshore where he became ill with virus-like symptoms. And now the guys are travelling to Aberdeen, having their temperature taken, packing onto choppers and ending up in HVAC (Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) accommodation modules where the air is recycled and people live cheek by jowl in shared cabins sometimes with 2 occupants sleeping in the same cabin at the same time, and everyone communally eating in the mess room. Keeping a consistent 2-meter distance on a North Sea installation is impossible while working normally. They can wash their hands till the skin comes off.
Although repeated hydrocarbon releases in recent years raise the suspicion that the North Sea is once more a disaster waiting to happen, no-one can have imagined that the disaster would be Covid 19. The media have to let go of their self-censorship, stop parroting industry PR and calling it news, and actually start investigating what’s going on and ask some pertinent questions and report clearly.
There’s been another mass cull of oil & gas workers in recent weeks. It’s the age-old response of the industry to price downturns. Maybe these guys will turn out to have been the lucky ones.
We recently published the Scot.E3 contribution to the XR “Oil & Gas” Public Meeting held in the Garnethill Multicultural Centre, Glasgow on Saturday January 25. Thanks to Neil Rothnie for this much more comprehensive report.
Rather than try and summarise the individual contributions by invited speakers and the discussions from the work groups, I’ll try and give a sense of what I thought the meeting achieved.
It was, it seemed to me, a success. It was well attended. Maybe 60 odd people? Men and women were fairly equally represented and there was a wide range of ages amongst those attending, though we were predominantly young. The speakers were good, the meeting attentive and discussion lively.
The success of the meeting owes much to the fact that it took place at the end of the month long Rig Rebellion 2 which, receiving considerable media attention, had brought the issue of fossil fuel production in UK into sharp focus. This meant that the struggle to end fossil fuel production on our patch was no longer just a theoretical question. We are engaged. This was reflected in the meeting.
The meeting was facilitated by Dario Kenner, active in XR Families in London who had travelled up with partner and two toddlers – an expression of seriousness if I ever did see one. Dario is author of “Carbon Inequality: The role of the richest in climate change” (Routledge, 2019). He’s also co-author with Rupert Read of a memo to XR. I’ve appended it. Dario’s presence, more than any argument, shouts that the struggle to decarbonise the economy, to take on the polluters, is a UK issue as part of a global issue. Certainly not a Scottish issue. No more than XR Aberdeen can be expected to shoulder the burden of confronting Big Oil, XR Scotland do not have the resources to take on the UK’s major polluters and chief source of UK’s greenhouse gasses. We are part of a movement that spans the whole of the UK.
A very personal message from a rebel “allegedly” involved in the most ambitious of the Rig Rebellion 2 actions was delivered to the meeting. It placed central stage, the issue of civil disobedience and direct action against the polluters, and nailed, as central to the struggle for survival, the end of fossil fuel production. Our speaker challenged the web of relationships in which oil and gas worker, rebels and the myriad other victims of climate change are caught up, in a toxic system built on misinformation, social conditioning, debt, powerlessness, privilege, excuses and ignorance. Rig Rebellion 2 means that no longer is the discussion about the future of North Sea oil & gas to be solely the property of industry and Government. The text will be appended if legal advice allows.
My ideas/comment on what the meeting achieved borrows heavily from the contributions of the two main speakers. Ryan Morrison from Friends of the Earth Scotland talked us, at breakneck speed, through the FotE sponsored “Sea Change” report , and Pete Cannell from Scot E3 took the discussion on to how we respond to this crisis. I’ve tried to reflect, as best I could, what came out of the group discussion I was involved in, and/or had notes from.
The big lie at the centre of today’s, still restricted, public discussion about global warming and species extinction is laid out clearly in Sea Change as presented to the meeting by Ryan. We can’t avoid climate chaos without tackling global warming. We can’t stay “well below” 2 degrees of warming without decarbonising the global economy. That is, not without the planned rundown of the source of greenhouse gasses – fossil fuel production. (North Sea oil & gas on our patch). And we can’t decarbonise the economy by following the “magic thinking” of industry and Government (Pete Cannell) who want business as usual and the maximum economic recovery of every barrel of oil & gas under the North Sea. 20 billion barrels more is the industry’s guesstimate. This gives us warning of what the industry plan is globally.
The issue of a “just transition” is central to the struggle to end fossil fuel production, and it’s not just about providing well paid jobs in renewables for workers who stand to lose well paid jobs in oil & gas, important as this is. Just transition is seen very differently in the global south (Ryan) and when we get the chance to explore this when activists from throughout the global south descend on Glasgow for COP26 later this year, we can show no more solidarity than be seen to be fighting to end to fossil fuel production in the global north starting with on our own patch, the North Sea.
The meeting took the discussion forward from the understanding that the Sea Change report gives us. Direct action is crucial in applying pressure on industry and Government and as Rig Rebellion 2 did, bringing the issue centre stage. But it is not in itself enough if the mass of people only look on – scared. The ideas of a just transition must become the common sense of society. (Pete) But to do that the ideas need to be sharply defined, not just the easy ones like why the oil & gas needs to stay in the ground, but those that confront the smoke and mirrors employed by industry and Government to justify business as usual. We need to understand carbon capture and storage (discussed by Ryan). If, as widely suspected, it cannot be delivered at anything like the scale required, then we need to be able to expose this with thoroughly researched materials and in a clear and concise fashion.
Multi billion pound taxpayer subsidies (our money) is handed to the industry by a Government whose ear they have. The threat of job losses in oil & gas that the industry say would accompany the ending of such subsidies and the ludicrous industry claim that they are ready to deliver net zero as a part of the solution as they continue business as usual. (Ryan). Our answer is the massive expansion of renewables during (and financed by) the end to subsidies to the oil & gas, and the planned run down of the industry starting now. This could leave us with a world class green energy industry to replace oil & gas. Otherwise where would we be in 2050 if this ludicrous plan for “maximum economic recovery” is allowed to proceed. Apart from fire fighting the results of another 30 years of full on fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions, we’d still have a reliance on oil & gas from wherever, when the North Sea fields have been pumped dry.
The weakness in the regulatory regime that encourages the misuse of migrant labour who are paid a fraction of the UK minimum wage in the offshore renewables industry was noted. (Ryan) A practice they no doubt learned from offshore oil decommissioning. The Sea Change report puts trade union organisation at the centre of a just transition to renewables, though this, given the state of trade unionism on the North Sea, is problematic.
When we confront Big Oil in Dundee and Aberdeen as we have begun to do, who are we actually speaking to? We challenge the industry’s vice grip on a media traditionally prepared to repeat any old nonsense that flows from oil company PR. But we’re also speaking to wider society. Those working in the industry might be the last people to be convinced, but they need to know that the energy transition is inevitable one way or another, and that their intervention will be crucial in determining whether it is to be fair to them or not. They also need to know they do not have a veto. All our grandchildren must have a future.
The discussion is impossible for me to record in any readable form. I’m here setting down some of the ideas that emerged from the contributions of our speakers and from the workgroups I have notes from. This is obviously not definitive and my be controversial. It’s not the final say and can only at best provide a framework for further more concrete planning if, as I hope, an Oil & Gas Working Group can be set up to carry forward what the Rig Rebellions have started.
Although direct action can’t stop oil & gas production, it can identify Big Oil as the problem and can generate press interest and effectively open the issues to public scrutiny. Maybe we can call our self Big Oil’s Big Nuisance. That’s a joke! But not for the industry who spend big keeping everyone “on message”.
Only as the role fossil fuels plays in generating greenhouse gasses and climate change becomes “common sense” in society (throughout the UK) can pressure be progressively brought to bear on Government and industry and finance to begin the mass expansion of renewable energy in sync with the rundown of oil & gas production.
The voice of even a small minority of oil & gas workers prepared to speak out on the issue of just transition and a future for their grandchildren would have a powerful effect and therefore outreach amongst this group is particularly important. But whatever they want to say, the workforce must be encouraged to say it. It is the workforce who will be forced to transition sooner or later, in a planned or a chaotic way. They need to intervene if it is going to be anything like fair to them. The last time there was an energy transition the coal miners and there families and communities, were shafted.
Amongst the citizens of Aberdeen, and amongst oil & gas workers, is where there is likely to be maximum pushback against these ideas, and has to be where we do our most serious listening. They will tell us where our arguments are weakest. Aberdeen also provides us with potential allies amongst those sections of the population who live amongst oil wealth and the high prices it generates, but who are living without oil wages. Making common purpose with them in the Oil Capital of Europe will bring the spotlight on the iniquity of the system and the nature of Big Oil. The transition is inevitable. But the industry, left to its own devices, will leave that city with little of value. What it threatens to leave society with is mass extinction of species
Research into carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen production, pushed as solutions to global warming needs to be accessed and turned into outreach material.
Imaginative materials allowing us to interact with citizens and oil & gas workers will be needed.
Media penetration will be important.
Should it be decided that an Oil & Gas Working Group be established to take this discussion further and make concrete plans, I think one of it’s first tasks will be how it can penetrate XR UK Circles, and challenge them to take responsibility for encouraging the whole movement to see ending oil & gas production from the under North Sea, and a major upscaling of renewable energy production, as a major strategical aim for the movement. This will need the whole movement with all its skills and operating at its regenerative best. UK’s greenhouse gas reserves/emissions are not a Scottish issue. XR UK must be challenged to encourage a movement wide campaign.
None of this is possible unless the necessity becomes “common sense”. Outreach is fundamental.
This is the year of COP26 in Glasgow. Let us show our solidarity with the activists from the Global South who come to Scotland. Let them see our determination to end fossil fuel production in the UK. We can organise transport and hospitality for Nigerian and other activists from around the world who may want to share our action and give their own message to Shell (and others) in Aberdeen, one of the the Oil Capitals of the Global North.