Watershed – the turning point for North Sea Oil and the just transition

Today saw the publication of an important new report from Friends of the Earth Scotland and Oil Change International

Key messages from the report include:

  • Since declaring a climate emergency in 2019, the UK’s developed oil and gas reserves have increased by 800 million barrels of oil and gas, bringing UK developed reserves to 6.55 billion barrels.
  • UK law and Scottish Government policy of Maximising Economic Recovery, which requires every last drop to be drilled from the North Sea, would triple UK emissions from oil and gas
  • To limit warming to the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5ºC no new oil & gas fields, including Cambo, can be licensed or developed and North Sea production must be wound down in the next decade
  • In line with equity, the UK – as a wealthy nation with high historic emissions and low economic dependence on oil revenues – should phase out of oil and gas faster than countries for which it would be much harder. Not all of the 6.55 billion barrels in currently producing or under developed reserves can be extracted – some will have to close early, before fully extracting their reserves.
  • Every delay damages the prospects of a well-planned and just transition for workers and communities currently reliant on the industry.

We plan to publish a more detailed review of the report and if you would like to contribute your thoughts on the issues that it raises please do get in touch.

Decommissioning Fictions

Neil Rothnie – ex oil worker and one time editor of the OILC newsletter Blowout spoke to a conference of people involved in the creative industries in Aberdeen on Saturday 4th September. He talked about the North Sea, climate jobs and just transition. We publish his contribution in full here.

I’ve been asked to speak because a large part of my life has revolved around struggle in the oil and gas industry. I spent my working life offshore, mostly on the North Sea, latterly in the Norwegian sector.  On the whole I enjoyed my working life.  I miss it a bit.  But mainly the Norwegian bit.

In my early days in the industry, I was active in the Aberdeen Branch of the National Union of Seamen. And during the strikes and occupations led by the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, in the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster, I founded and produced Blowout.  At that time a “nasty scurrilous” tabloid that aspired to giving oil workers a voice. 

I became the Secretary of the OILC branch of RMT after OILC “merged with” the Rail Maritime and Transport union, and I briefly represented RMT’s oil worker members on the executive of that union.  I remain a member of the Norwegian union, Industri Energi. 

I was inspired to join the struggle against climate change by Extinction Rebellion.  I’m also active with ScotE3, campaigning for jobs and a just transition (the three Es in ScotE3 are employment, energy and environment).  I’m speaking for neither of these organisations. I’m sure a lot of what I say here would get agreement from many, but not all, of the supporters of these two organisations.

As I understand climate science, it is fossil fuels that are very largely the source of the greenhouse gasses that are heating the environment and causing climate change and threatening the existence of much of life on the planet. For fossil fuel read oil & gas, at least for the purposes of this meeting.

So, I find myself back in a fight with the oil industry.  In the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster, I struggled alongside the very best, and most conscious of the offshore workforce, many of whom were lifelong trade union members. Today I struggle alongside the very best, and most conscious of the youth, organised in Extinction Rebellion and in other civil society organisations, and with other old guys in ScotE3.

It’s a lifetime of work in the industry, and recent activity as a climate activist that informs my understanding of a “just transition”.  Global heating and climate change is not the fault of oil and gas workers, and it isn’t/wasn’t the fault of the coal miners either.  

That’s the good news.

This thought consoles me just before I try and get to sleep while trying to imagine my grandchildren having long, happy and fulfilled lives, sharing a planet teeming with life.  

The bad news is that blameworthy or not, oil and gas workers are going to have to stop being oil and gas workers.  Sooner rather than later if they share my concern for their own grandchildren.  The solution it would seem is a “just transition”.  I think we should have a look at the two parts of this “just transition” construct.

The transition! It’s already underway. And insofar as I understand the science, there’s no going back. 

One possible outcome is that we’re going to complete that transition to a sustainable habitable world powered by renewable energy and a planet where we’ve stopped the practice of dumping greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere. 

The alternative is that we’re going to transition to a largely uninhabitable world      where the earth’s delicate ecological balance is disrupted,  and enormous forces of nature are released, eventually taking humanity and the rest of life on the planet into a premature and manmade fifth mass extinction.

Transition, it seems to me, is not a choice.  It’s begun.  We’re in the process. We WILL transition to a planet beyond fossil fuel burning.  

Mind you there’s a possibility that there just might not be people there to see it.  But if we and lot of the rest of life on this planet are going to survive oil and gas is going to have to go and soon.

But what about the “just” bit of a “just transition”?  Does “just” mean “fair”?  I only ask because it renders my next question into English.  

Fair to whom?  Do we mean fair to our grandchildren and to their grandchildren?  Those who are going to inherit the planet in whatever state we’re going to leave it?  Do we mean fair to those who have spent their lives with little access to the fossil fuel energy that’s destabilising the planet?  The very same people who are often at the sharp end of climate change?  Do we mean fair to all other life forms on the planet?  Or, as it’s usually understood in our corner of the globe, do we mean fair to the workers who currently produce and process the fossil fuels that have kept the lights on in the Global North?  In the sense that oil and gas workers, and the communities in which they live, should not be dumped, as were the miners before them, when the UK transitioned from coal to gas in the 1980s and 90s?

Surely, we mean “fair” in all of the above senses of the word.  But with, I think, an important qualification.  “The transition” is primary.  

Whether it is to be just or not, is entirely subordinate.  No transition to renewables  and the fairness or otherwise, really won’t matter a shit.   

None of this means that I don’t think it matters what happens to oil and gas workers and the communities in which they live.  But I think we should be clear that oil and gas workers and their families are not some sort of special case. The future for their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s grandchildren will ultimately be bound up with the future of ALL of our grandchildren.  

There’s no special case, no “business as usual” scenario for the North Sea, where the transition doesn’t happen, and where oil and gas workers just keep on keeping on, producing fossil fuels.  And the fairness or otherwise of the “transition” for oil and gas workers is going to be determined in some part by the stand taken by the workforce and their families and communities.

From the standpoint of a roughneck, or a scaffolder, or a caterer on an oil rig on the North Sea, this “business as usual” might well look, pretty damned attractive if you’re hanging on to even a precarious “ad hoc” job, and the alternative is a wage thousands of pounds a year less, and that’s if you could actually get a job ashore or in offshore renewables.  In the same circumstances what would your initial reaction be?  You’d have a bit more of the “business as usual” too, at least till you could plan your exit.

But what has “business as usual” really meant for offshore workers in the UK sector.  Relatively good money!  That’s true.  But it’s been falling real wages and diminishing job security and major layoffs after successive oil price shocks going right back to 1986. You can have spent your whole working life on the North Sea and still be liable to arbitrary dismissal (I can explain the NRB later if anyone here is not familiar with it). And for many, work schedules in the UK sector are as ball bustlingly bad as ever. The boom days were pretty much over by the time Occidental killed 167 workers when they allowed Piper Alpha to blow up.

There are a lot of very good reasons for workers to get off the North Sea and into an industry with a future.   The problem is how,and where, because the Government and the industry, are hanging on, as if to dear life, to a hydrocarbon future.  Where is the clear plan to run down the industry and retrain and redeploy the workers in renewables, using the skills that they already have?  And where is the plan for learning to live with the amount of renewable energy that we can reasonably expect to produce in the crucial near future? Which is what a Government and an industry would be doing if they gave a fuck for the workers, or the planet for that matter.      .  

And then there’s the offshore wind industry, driven by profit. They’ll have studied carefully how the oil companies have tackled decommissioning.  They too would rather pay wage rates that might well allow a decent standard of living in Manilla, but certainly doesn’t cut it in Aberdeen or Middlesbrough or Burntisland.  The workers who used to produce wind towers in Campeltown could tell you all about this.  What we have instead of a plan for a just transition,     is a deal between the Government and the industry to further support hydrocarbon production, to continue with “business as usual”  on the North Sea, subsidised to the hilt by taxpayers’ money. 

The end of oil and gas globally must look like the end of the world to the fossil fuel industry, the bankers who finance it, the traders who parasitise it and the politicians. Hopefully it’ll only be the end of a rotten and corrupt system.

The Government parrots the industry formula about oil and gas production being necessary “for decades to come”.  They call their plan for the North Sea “maximising economic recovery”.  Producing every barrel that they can turn a profit on.  This perverse version of “business as usual” has been written into the UK’s statute books.  

And it begs the question of whether our Government, hosts of COP26, self-anointed global leaders in the fight against climate change,are giving the nod here to maximising economic recovery of ALL oil and gas?      

Globally?                            

I shouldn’t think Vlad the poisoner or the Crown Prince murderer need much encouragement to follow suite.  

Central to the UK plan is one mitigation measure. It’s an expensive, energy guzzling technology that has been stalling for the last three decades,    and which would require a 1000 fold increase in capacity worldwide to begin to address the situation.  It’s called carbon capture and storage (CCS) and it’s linked to so called “blue” hydrogen production.  CCS at scale is not even up and running in one single location in UK. It’s pretty much only commercially viable as a tool for producing even more oil and gas mainly in the States, and only then when oil and gas prices are high.  CCS is beloved of the oil industry and the Government, but is “disappeared” by the media in much the same way as the North Sea itself is largely disappeared in public debate about global heating.              

And the questions that never get asked?

Who’s going to pick up the bill for producing the hydrogen from natural gas and then capture and store this polluting waste product. The oil and gas industry itself?  Not very likely!  They don’t even pay for the oil.  And they’re not going to pay to clean up much of their old hardware on the North Sea when its useful life is over.  

The taxpayer is going to have the privilege of paying for a vast amount of the decommissioning of redundant platforms.

The polluter pays?  Huh!

Putting the cost of hydrogen and carbon capture on top of the cost of production of oil and gas sounds very much like the kind of squeeze on profits that periodic oil price collapses have repeatedly given us. And the oil and gas workers know what happens every time the oil price falls and profits are squeezed.  Investment dries up and the workers get dumped, and if they’re lucky, rehired at lower rates down the line.

If hydrogen and carbon capture and storage is a serious solution to global heating, then we need to know how much more fossil fuels will have to be produced to fuel this energy hungry process and how much carbon will be captured and stored and by whom on what timescale      and at what cost, to whom.  We need urgently to open a conversation with those, and I’m thinking here of the hugely respected climate scientist Myles Allen, who sees the transition led by the oil industry. Which sounds a lot to me like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Although it’s not the oil workers’ responsibility alone to change this situation, they are first in the firing line, and what they do is going to be decisive in deciding whether the transition is going to be fair or “just” from their point of view.  They can swallow the plan of Government and industry for continued exploration and development of new oil and gas fields. They might gamble that the industry will see them out and fuck the consequences for their grandchildren and the planet.  They might opt for the “business as usual” option that gives them periodic job crashes and diminishing wages and conditions, and very likely future disasters and loss of life, and leaves them negotiating their escape from the industry alone as individuals.  Certainly, the last time any significant section of oil and gas workers took up a struggle was over three decades ago after Occidental dispatched 167 workers on Piper Alpha. 

Back then the official trade union movement completely failed to step up to the challenge.  They were utterly useless, and it took the rank-and-file Offshore Industry Liaison Committee to try and ensure that Piper Alpha would never be repeated. But a quarter of a century later, French oil giant Total did exactly that.  They presided over a complete breakdown of safety offshore, endangering the lives of the 267 men on Elgin and the Rowan Viking in 2012.  Only luck stopped Total blowing up the Elgin complex with all hands onboard.  

The Blowout publication never reported on the Elgin Blowout. That edition coincided with the 25th anniversary of Piper and would have seriously challenged the  “never again” and the “we’ve learned our lesson” mantras.

So, who can predict what lies ahead, and what the workforce might, or might not do?  We’ll no doubt get the measure of the offshore unions’ commitment to fighting climate change when we hear what their response to the proposed new Cambo oilfield West of Shetland will be.  

Yesterday’s Just Transition Coalition Conference featuring the trade unions gave us a bit of a clue.  The unions kept quiet on the issue.

But not one section of society alone is going to turn the climate crisis around. And the offshore worker is no more to blame than anyone else for the crisis, and no more responsible for solving it.  

But if the oil and gas workers are to play a part in securing a just transition for themselves and their communities, they’ll certainly need all the support they can get. 

The environmental movement have the responsibility for making sure that oil and gas workers have access to the science and an understanding of the role that fossil fuels play in global heating. 

Creatives also have a role, maybe even some sort of responsibility here. And indeed this exhibition and related events suggests that this community is awake to oil and gas and its colossal implications locally, and for the planet.  Maybe here in Aberdeen we’ve seen an end to an era, when for almost two decades, BP could sponsor the Grays’ School of Art degree show, drink their champagne in their own cosy enclosure, and with their own invited guests.

While BP were basking in the glow of appreciation from academia and creating a warm and fuzzy image in Aberdeen, they were breaking all the rules on the Deepwater Horizon where they killed 11 men, and in the process trashed the Gulf of Mexico with the world’s worst oil spill?  I’m guessing BP’s paltry sponsorship money didn’t stretch to getting that years photography class from Garthdee over to Louisiana’s beaches. Not that that would have appreciably added to their 65 billion dollar costs that included a 4 billion dollar criminal penalty.

Andy Kennedy, old friend and neighbour, and one time tutor at Gray’s and known to a few of you here today,  told me

Artists are encouraged to practice thinking, questioning, observing and reacting.  It’s what they do.  

He said,

Artists are supposed to upset the apple cart, knock on doors and ask for change

He said a lot of nice things about artists but these are the only bits I understood.Ah!  Some of you do know him I see.

Maybe from here on in we’re likely to see, reflected in the degree show, a much more critical appreciation of the industry that’s dominated Aberdeen for the last 5 decades.  Maybe that’s not how it works.  

But at least creatives should be checking what is being funded by Oil and Gas, what if any hidden strings are attached, and ask themselves just what are the BPs and Shells of this world getting out of sponsorship of the arts.

We all, including the workers, will have to work out where we stand in this existential crisis.  Nobody on this side of the fence is forcing the workers into a corner. It’s the climate crisis itself that’s doing that to all of us.

So, who knows whether the transition is going to be just?  The brightest light in this gloom are the youth inspired by Greta Thunberg.  They include the sons and daughters of oil workers, and they now find themselves on the front line of struggle. It’s their future that’s at stake. They are more likely than anyone to speak truth to the workers and to the industry.

The climate movement, armed by climate science, has a responsibility not to shy away from the very difficult questions posed by the transition for the industry workforce.  The workers need to know the facts about climate change and fossil fuels. The workers and their communities will themselves have to come to terms with what continued hydrocarbon production means.

Maybe climate activists in Aberdeen and the North East          bolstered by the creatives might consider opening their doors    for a couple of days during the COP to activists who will be in Scotland from all over the global south.  

Maybe together we can challenge Shell, Siccar Point, and the Oil and Gas Authority in Aberdeen, and let them know what we think of their Cambo plans.  

Maybe together we can get out to the heliports and into the city and open up a conversation with the oil workers about what would be a “just transition” for everyone, and how that might be achieved.  

Maybe we can set the tone for a global conversation about the future of hydrocarbons.

The transition is already under way.

How “just” it will be is yet to be seen.

Stand with the people of Torry

Thanks to Friends of the Earth Scotland for sharing this call to action from a working class community in Aberdeen. Residents in Torry, just south of Aberdeen, are having their only green space threatened by an oil industry land grab in the name of ‘energy transition’. The group has been campaigning to protect their local park and for a just transition that meaningfully includes local communities. 

The oil industry and Aberdeen City Council are planning to destroy a much-loved greenspace called St Fitticks Park, which lies in the heart of Torry, a community in the south of Aberdeen. The council, together with a consortium of oil companies and Aberdeen Harbour want to dig up the park and build an ‘Energy Transition Zone’. This project now also has funding from the Scottish Government. 

St Fitticks Park is the main greenspace in Torry and is enjoyed by generations of Torry residents, as well as attracting people from outside the community due to its thriving wetland, which is a home to a variety wildlife.

A community group has formed to resist the proposals (The Friends of St Fitticks) and they have various plans to safeguard the future of the park. They support the idea of an energy transition zone in response to the climate emergency, but argue this should be located on vacant industrial land to the south and west of Torry, not on their beloved greenspace.

Unwanted industrial development has been imposed on the people of Torry down the years. In the 1970’s homes were demolished to make way for a harbour expansion to accommodate the new oil industry, but many people living in Torry have seen little economic benefit from an industry that dominates the city. So once again they are fighting one of the most powerful industries in the world. 

On Saturday 28th August, local people will gather in the park for St Fitticks day. We need to show that the community has wider support and help them to get their message heard. Please show your solidarity with the people of Torry, by either:

A) Taking a photo with ’Save Saint Fitticks Park’ placards (on your own or with your group) in your local green space and posting on social media with #HandsOffStFitticks

B) Share the graphic on social media with #HandsOffStFitticks

You can read more about the local struggle on the Friends of the Earth Scotland website.

#HandsOffStFitticks

Wind Power, Green Jobs, Global Capitalism

Mike Downham reviews ‘Who wields the welding rod’ recently published in the London Review of Books

It’s impossible to do justice here to James Meek’s 12,000 word piece “Who holds the welding rod?” (LRB 15th July).

This exceptional investigation took journalist Meek to Hull, Campbeltown and remotely (because of Covid) to Vietnam through a Vietnamese researcher. The piece is threaded with the bitter experiences of many individual workers and an intimate account of the Campbeltown community’s past and present predicaments.

The story starts with a vivid picture of the voyage of a German-owned cargo ship loaded with wind towers which had left the Vietnamese port of Phu My in early April last year, arriving more than a month later in Hull.

The towers are massive. The hollow tapered columns, made of thick painted steel, are designed to be attached to the sea-bed, raising the turbines high enough above the sea for clearance of their huge blades. They are hundreds of feet tall and weigh hundreds of tonnes.

This shipment was destined for Hornsea Two in the North Sea, which will be the largest offshore windfarm in the world, scheduled to be operational next year.

The towers were made in a factory in Phu My by the Korean company CS Wind. The towers for Hornsea One were made by a CS wind factory in Campbeltown. CS wind doesn’t have a factory in Korea. Instead it has factories in Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, China, Canada and Scotland (Campbeltown). It’s really one vast international factory. The factories in both Canada and Scotland have been closed down because CS wind said they couldn’t make a profit. In the year or so before closure working conditions in the Campbeltown factory deteriorated to such an extent that serious accidents, some of them permanently disabling, became common. Then 100 jobs were lost from a small remote town which offers few other employment opportunities.

The Scottish Government had made it attractive for CS Wind to start a factory in Campbeltown, though it could have invested instead in an available Scottish company. They chose the cheaper investment of a Korean company, knowing full well that the reason it was cheaper was that CS Wind pays its workers less and works them for longer hours. The jobs it provided people in Campbeltown, more like slave labour than jobs, lasted less than three years. 

CS wind may sound powerful but it’s at the bottom of the pyramid of control in the wind industry. At the top are the project developers, who put up the money – companies like Orsted (controlled by the Danish government) and SSE (London-listed, Scotland-based). The project developers contract engineering companies to manufacture and install the turbines. In Europe and much of the world the dominant engineering players are Vestas (Danish) and Siemens-Gamesa (German-Spanish), both of whom manufacture the blades and the turbines themselves because they are high-value, and contract out the rest, including the wind towers.

Are the conflicting goals of cheap green energy, free trade and secure well-paid jobs irreconcilable? At one point Meek thinks they are. But later he says:

It shouldn’t be more important that the North Sea wind farms get built than that some of their towers are made by low-paid labourers working twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week; and yet the immense utopian project to decarbonise human activity forges ahead, while the equally utopian project to end the setting of ‘low income country’ worker against ‘high income country’ worker barely exists. The mad dream of a green energy transition might just be starting to come true, with much of the credit due to stubborn activists, clever engineers and a handful of far-sighted policymakers. But it is also happening for the unlikely reason that it has been redefined as a global capitalist-consumerist project. It realises utopian goals while simultaneously keeping stock-markets ticking over, making the rich richer and spreading a general sense of virtue. The system has been able to turn the green energy transition into a set of products – electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines – but the transition  to a world of better-treated workers involves systemic changes that are the antithesis of commodification.

We have an internationalist movement to save humanity from climate. But we also have an internationalist movement to save humanity from capitalist exploitation. For the latter movement to win the struggle, as Meek concludes, a world factory like CS Wind’s demands a world trade union.

Stop Cambo

Both the UK and Scottish governments remain committed to continuing extraction of North Sea Oil and Gas. Carbon emission from the burning of these fuels are more than five times those of the whole Scottish economy. Yet these emissions are not included in Scottish or UK targets for emissions reduction. The assumption is that other countries will cut usage and the market will then drive down demand or, and more often, that we can carry on producing willy nilly but consumers will find ways of capturing the carbon. Both of these events are deferred into the future and exploration and development of new fields continues. The Sea Change report shows how these plans are incompatible with a zero carbon economy and with a just transition.

Thanks to Friends of the Earth Scotland for these notes on the latest development west of Shetland.

  • Oil giant Shell and Siccar Point Energy are seeking permission from the UK Government to develop the Cambo oil field, West of Shetland, just months ahead of COP26. In the first phase, due to start in 2025, the companies expect to extract 150 million barrels of oil – the emissions equivalent of 16 coal-fired power plants running for a year. They anticipate operating the Cambo field, which contains 800 million boe, until 2050, by which time Britain has pledged to be net carbon neutral.
  • The Cambo Field is the second largest oil and gas development waiting for approval and once up and running is set to be the fifth largest producer in the North Sea. If approved, Cambo Field will be the first UK project to get the green light since the International Energy Agency Net Zero report calling for no new investment in oil and gas starting this year and the Shell ruling mandating the company to slash carbon emissions 45% by 2030. 
  • The UK Government is currently expected to give its final approval on the project over the next six to eight weeks. Moving forward with the Cambo Field contradicts the findings of the IEA’s net zero report and is incompatible with limiting warming to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5C. 
  • The climate impacts of opening the Cambo Oil field would be devastating. In the first phase alone, developers want to extract 150million barrels of oil; the emissions from which are equivalent to running a coal-fired power station for 16 years. The field is expected to operate until 2050 – the point by which your government has committed to reaching net zero emissions.  And this is just the beginning. Cambo Field is only one of many oil and gas projects waiting for government approval that have the potential to extract 1.7 billions barrels of oil. 
  • Approving the Cambo field will be a massive failure of UK climate leadership and threatens to undermine the success of the crucial UN climate talks. In just a few months, the eyes of the world will turn to the UK as the hosts of the UN climate talks in Glasgow. Approving the Cambo field will send a clear message that this government is not serious about climate action and not willing to do its part to phase out support for oil and gas. If the UK keeps extracting oil and gas, how can it expect other countries to do anything different?
  • The International Energy Agency has stated that to meet the 1.5°C target in the Paris Agreement, there should be no more new investment in oil, gas, or coal. Further, the recent UK Climate Change Committee assessment clearly laid out that current UK policies are far from delivering the UK’s climate goals. The amount of oil and gas in already operating fields in the UK will exceed our share of emissions in relation to the Paris climate goals. The world cannot afford to open new fossil fuel frontiers. This starts with rejecting the Cambo Field.
  • If Boris Johnson is serious about being a climate leader, he must reject Cambo, all new fossil fuel developments and support a just transition for oil and gas workers and impacted communities. It’s time to end the UK government’s support for maximising the economic recovery of oil & gas and commit instead to a rapid and fair energy transition. With the right policy support, the UK could create three jobs in clean energy for every oil & gas job at risk. We need a clear, credible plan to wind down production and deliver a just transition that is driven by oil and gas workers, their unions and affected communities. 
  • The Cambo Field will bring few jobs, little tax and a potentially huge clean up bill for the public purse. Contracts for construction and installation have been awarded to overseas firms, meaning the bulk of jobs will be outside of the UK. As part of a global oil market 80% of UK crude is currently exported, and so this field would not contribute significantly to UK energy security. Siccar Point Energy, who owns the majority stake in the proposed field, paid no net tax between 2015 and 2019, instead receiving £41mn from the government to cover decommissioning costs. Meanwhile, the complexity of the field and high cost of operating in the West of Shetland makes the project high risk, with similar projects suffering from large cost overruns that have driven producers to bankruptcy.

Green Jobs in Scotland – a review

In April the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) published a new report ‘Green Jobs in Scotland’. written by Transition Economics.  The headline finding is that the decarbonisation of the Scottish economy could lead to 367,000 new jobs.  That’s about 16% of the number of workers employed currently in Scotland.  

The jobs message is powerful but it’s not new.  More than a decade ago the ‘Million Climate Jobs’ pamphlet looked at how large numbers of new jobs are essential to the transition to a zero-carbon economy. It estimated that a million new jobs are needed across the UK; scaled by population size this means around 100,000 jobs for Scotland.  This prediction was confirmed by a December 2018 report by the Green European foundation, which provides regional estimates for job creation in Scotland.  Six months later the Sea Change report showed how a planned run down of North Sea Oil and Gas could mean many more, new, skilled jobs in renewables.  The STUC report adds to this body of evidence. However, the challenge remains for trade unionists and climate campaigners alike to take the evidence, make it widely known and build a mass movement to make it happen.  

Green Jobs in Scotland comprises 103 pages of densely packed analysis covering six broad sectors of the Scottish economy.  It’s important to note that it is not a critique of either the Scottish or UK’s policies on climate.  It takes as given, for example, the fact that both governments’ have strategies based on large scale use of carbon capture and storage.  What it does do, sector by sector, is take current targets and policy recommendations and analyse in detail what needs to change for decarbonisation targets to be achieved.  The graphic illustrates how, in the best case scenario, 367,000 new jobs would be distributed across six major industry sectors.  

The report repays careful reading, not just because it provides solid evidence to back up the case for climate jobs, but also because, working within mainstream assumptions about the economy it shines a light on significant dangers along the road to transition.  

The Transition Economics team highlight the inadequacy of current climate action plans and argue that for targets to be achieved the Scottish Government’s timeline to meet its 2045 targets needs to be revised

Scotland’s net zero emissions by 2045 target, decarbonisation has to accelerate.

They also make it clear that, to date, the promise of jobs has been illusory. Indeed, job numbers in the renewable sector have been in decline.  This is a direct result of policies that have relied on the market.  And the report makes it clear, that while with the right policies and funding in place, 367,000 new jobs in the Scottish economy is a possible outcome, without such policies the number of new jobs might be as low as 156,000.  It concludes that 

… it is also possible for Scotland to decarbonise without significant domestic job creation – and that those jobs created could be primarily precarious and under-paid. 

The report gives examples of the consequences of giving free rein to the private sector. For example, in offshore wind and solar 

… employment in renewable energy …has been below standard. Jobs tend not to be unionised, and there have been reports of large multinational energy utilities like EDF trying to avoid unionisation of their (new) renewables divisions, despite union recognition across the rest of the company. The wind power Sector Deal created by the UK Government excludes any provision for trade unions. This adds to significant Health & Safety concerns with wind power, repeated violations, and recent deaths amongst onshore wind workers.

An investigation revealed that migrant workers hired to work on crane ships and guard vessels for offshore windfarm construction and offshore cable-laying sites were paid a fraction of the minimum wage and made to work more than 12 hours a day – both at the Beatrice site and others.  Instead of ensuring acceptable labour standards, the UK government has now repeatedly extended a waiver work for permit requirements in the wind sector to facilitate the employment of foreign crews – raising concerns about poor safety and human rights conditions for migrant workers, as well as concerns about local jobs and training opportunities in the sector.

Throughout, the report assumes that climate projects will be undertaken by the private sector with public participation.  The role for participation is to set policy goals, make investments and provide some level of regulation – legislation on fair work practices for example.  One example that is given notes that there are serious skill shortages in some sectors and recommends a co-ordinated approach to skills provision for the climate transition through the creation of a new public body – Climate Skills Scotland.  The new organisation’s role would be


to play a co-ordinating and pro-active role to work with existing providers (e.g. FE colleges) to quickly roll out the new qualifications required. 

So essentially, public participation means supporting and facilitating the private sector.  But given the track record of the private sector there must be grounds for questioning whether this level of participation is adequate. It’s clearly right to suggest, as the report does, that there is no certainty that the headline figure of almost 400,000 jobs will be achieved, or that jobs will be unionised and provide good pay and conditions.  Even if both Holyrood and Westminster step up the pace and address investment in the projects outlined in the report, the private sector will still be driven by profit maximisation.  That’s why renewable job numbers in Scotland have declined, why renewable projects source production on the other side of the world resulting in massive carbon footprints, and why wage rates and working conditions are driven to the bottom.  Scot.E3 argues that public participation is not enough to ensure that we meet zero carbon targets or to ensure that the jobs that accrue from transition are good jobs.  We need public ownership and democratic control.   

Finally, the report touches upon three areas which, in our view, require urgent attention if Scotland’s roadmap for transition to zero carbon can have any credibility.  The first of these is North Sea Oil and Gas.  Most oil and gas production is not included in Scottish emissions figures or in targets for emissions reductions. The report notes that:

Scotland’s oil and gas output is equivalent to an additional 180.3 MtCO2e when used, more than four times greater than Scotland’s own greenhouse gas emissions [our emphasis].  

These uncounted emissions represent a whole herd of elephants in the room and must be addressed as part of a planned, coordinated and just transition.  This requires a sharp shift from the current policy, espoused by both Holyrood and Westminster, of maximum economic recovery of North Sea hydrocarbons.  It also requires a break with the long-term partnership with big oil which has been cemented over 50 years by massive subsidies from the public purse and is now driving the policy focus on hydrogen production in order to sustain the industries dominant economic position.  

The report is critical of a focus on hydrogen production from oil (blue hydrogen), arguing that it could delay progress with green hydrogen produced by electrolysing water. However, in line with its overall concentration on existing government policy it fails to look at the serious criticisms that have been made of zero carbon plans that foreground hydrogen.  

Finally, the report notes how the private companies contracted to build energy from waste plants have tried to drive through serious cuts in pay and working conditions.  However, it is uncritical of a strategy that requires a continual stream of waste for burning (and thus generating greenhouse gas emissions) for decades to come) and is incompatible with a zero-carbon transition and the Scottish Government’s aspirations for a circular economy.

Scot.E3’s campaigning pledge for COP26

With the delayed COP26 United Nations Climate talks scheduled for Glasgow in November the eyes of the world are on Scotland in 2021.

The Westminster and Holyrood governments aim to present themselves as international leaders in tackling the climate crisis.  However, the policy of both governments is to maximise economic recovery of North Sea oil and gas.  The Sea Change report shows how this policy is completely incompatible with keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees centigrade.   Oil and gas production needs to stop here in Scotland and worldwide.  At the same time the lives and livelihoods of those working in oil and gas must be protected.

We therefore demand:

  1. The immediate cessation of all new exploration, development and drilling activity in the British sector of the North Sea.
  2. A planned and phased end of oil and gas production in the North Sea that would ensure that activity ends by 2030.  
  3. The establishment of a publicly owned and democratically controlled Scottish Climate Service with a five-year target to create 100,000 climate jobs. The SCS would manage new investments in the production, distribution and storage of renewable energy and Scotland wide projects, for example, retrofitting homes and offices to high insulation standards and district heating.
  4. Guaranteed employment and retraining with the SCS for all oil and gas workers whose jobs end as a result of decommissioning.

We would like individuals and organisations to discuss the pledge, support and campaign for it.  If you, or your organisation, would like to add your name to the list of supporters, please email Scot.E3 at triple.e.scot@gmail.com .  You can use the form on our contact page if you wish.  The list of signatories is here.Please get in touch If you would like someone from Scot.E3 to speak at a discussion on the issues that the pledge raises

North Sea and Just Transition – let’s talk about public ownership

We republish this article with thanks from the excellent People and Nature blog (well worth following) – it has also been reposted by the Ecologist.

The UK paid Royal Dutch Shell $116 million of tax rebates in 2019, while the company reported $92.1 billion revenues in the UK for the year.

Internationally, Shell made pre-tax profits of $25.5 billion in 2019, and paid $7.8 billion income tax and $5.9 billion royalties, in dozens of countries. But the UK, France, South Africa and Indonesia handed money back to Shell.

The figures were published last month by Shell. The UK tax rebate to Shell also shows up in the UK Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) report, published last week, along with a smaller £14.7 million tax rebate to BP.

At least the UK’s upstream oil industry as a whole paid some tax in 2019 – £1.43 billion – unlike 2015 and 2016, when the Treasury paid out more 

in rebates than it collected in tax (as shown in this earlier EITI report).

Shell and BP’s rebates are part of the hugely generous system of tax breaks for North Sea producers, linked to the decommissioning of declining oil fields (and analysed last year in the Sea Change report by Platform, Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth).

These are subsidies to fossil fuel production, running into billions of pounds, devised by a Tory government that claims to be taking action on climate change.

And the problem runs deeper. North Sea oil production has since the 1980s been taxed with profit-based, rather than resource-based, methods, which gave the international companies access to the resources in the ground on unprecedentedly favourable terms.

The central role of these tax arrangements in the neoliberal “process of redefinition of the economic frontiers of the state” was analysed in this article by Juan Carlos Boué, published by Scot.E3, the just transition campaign group. The UK tax model was promoted across the world and “destabilised many key petroleum producers, whose governments found themselves starved of fiscal income”, Boué argues.

This is all politically relevant right now, as trade unionists and environmentalists seek ways to unite to ensure a just transition away from oil and gas production on the North Sea. 

There have been some vital steps forward in recent weeks.

In September, a report compiled by Platform, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace gave voice to North Sea workers’ views on just transition. It was based on a survey of 1383 workers, all in upstream oil and gas.

The report showed that most people who actually work on the North Sea (91% of respondents) had never even heard the term “just transition” – a reminder of the yawning gap between working people on one hand and political, academic, trade union and “left” circles on the other.

The report – which was greeted by the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union – also showed that North Sea workers definitely embrace the idea of moving out of oil and gas production and into offshore wind, in particular,

Oil and wind. Photos by Berardo62 (oil) and David Dixon / Creative Commons

and other twenty-first century ways of doing things in general. The respondents were overwhelmingly positive about retraining and moving to other industries, and offshore wind was the favourite choice.

On a webinar arranged by Platform last week, three offshore workers gave their views, together with a trade union official (Jake Molloy of the RMT), a Labour politician (Lewis MacDonald, Member of Scottish parliament) and an energy researcher (Anna Markova, Transition Economics).

The workers spoke of the hardship and demoralisation caused when the oil price falls and big companies shed labour, which they have been doing throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The high level of casualisation on the North Sea makes matters worse.

Workers who hope to move to offshore wind jobs are further aggrieved by an unjust, bureaucratic qualifications regime. They are required to pay for re-training courses from their own pockets – at the very moment when they are looking for a job and short of money. Many companies add insult to injury by requiring them to do e.g. basic safety training that covers issues they have learned over decades offshore.

The webinar provided space to reflect on what a worker-led just transition would look like. Jake Molloy of RMT pointed to the huge job, now starting, of decommissioning old oil rigs. “The steel should be recycled and used for wind turbines”, he suggested. (He said similar things when addressing the Scottish TUC recently. See this recording, at 4 hours 52 minutes.)

Such suggestions will take on meaning if they are linked to calls for public ownership, and for an end to the subsidies paid to oil and gas producers, in my view.

Only public corporations, acting in the interests of society as a whole and not for profit, would be able to act on proposals such as Molloy’s. Running down oil and gas production, and decarbonising the economy, needs integrated approaches by entities that take full account of the social and climate consequences of their actions.

Only moves towards public ownership can challenge the energy companies who see the North Sea as one part of their global operations, and use their lobbying power to mould the tax regime to their interests.

At last week’s webinar, repeated mention was made of work that could be done in the UK, e.g. building and repairing rigs and wind turbines, being done elsewhere.

There is a danger of the labour movement approaching this as a competition between workers in different places, going back along the road trod by Gordon Brown, with his notorious call for “British jobs for British workers”.

This can only feed the divisive nationalism and protectionism to which the Johnson government appeals.

A campaign for public ownership, by contrast, highlights the fact that the state can be used to challenge the power of multinational capital and constrain its exploitation of working people and of natural resources.

It highlights the fact that state action could run down oil and gas production on the North Sea, expand electricity generation from renewable sources, and develop other industries in the areas where communities now rely on employment offshore.

A campaign for public ownership to underpin a just transition could start to challenge the multinational oil companies and their accomplices in government, and unite offshore workers with school students and all those demanding rapid action to stop dangerous climate change. GL, 15 December 2020.

■ As the discussion on just transition got started in Scotland, Shell’s truth-bending claims that it is doing something about climate change have been taking a beating. Several senior executives in its renewables energy business have quit, amid what the Financial Times reported is “frustration” at the minute quantity of investment in non-carbon technologies. Two big court cases against Shell by Friends of the Earth Netherlands are close to their conclusion. The first is to compel the company to clean up the damage it has done over decades to the Niger Delta, in Nigeria, where it produces oil. The second case is aimed at forcing Shell to reduce its carbon emissions.

Further Reading

What the BiFab disaster tells us about class rule – Scot.E3

Bifab- time for action – Scot.E3

Crisis, North Sea oil and Covid 19 – Platform

North Sea oil and gas: the elephant in the room – People & Nature, October 2019

BiFab – time for action

On November 16th, 2017, hundreds of workers at the BiFab fabrication yards in Fife marched down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile towards the Scottish Parliament in a magnificent show of determination to save their jobs.  Three years on, and despite nearly £54 million investment from the Scottish Government, the hope raised on that day lies in tatters.  BiFab could have been a milestone on the path to a zero-carbon economy.  Instead, it stands as a warning that should not be ignored. 

REEL News reported on BiFab in November 2017

In this post I tell the story of BiFab and argue for the importance of a radically different approach.

BiFab was founded in Fife in 2001.  Initially based at Burntisland, it expanded to take over the huge construction yard just up the coast at Methil and the Arnish yard on the Isle of Lewis.  The company played a significant part in fabricating platforms for the development of the west of Shetland oil and gas fields.  As demand declined it began manufacturing jackets for offshore wind installations. 

In 2016 the company won a £100 million order to manufacture jackets for the Beatrice windfarm in the Moray Firth.  The November 2017 crisis was sparked by cash flow problems linked to this contract.  At this point the company employed around 1400 workers, although notably 1200 of these were on agency contacts rather than direct employees.  All these jobs were at risk.

BiFab workers responded by occupying the yards, ensuring that no valuable equipment could be removed, and, on the 16th November, they marched on the Scottish Parliament.  The Scottish Government stepped in, providing a £15 million loan that ensured that the firm avoided going into administration.  The occupations ended and work on the jackets for Beatrice resumed.  But the relief was short lived.  The Beatrice contract was nearly complete, there was nothing else in the order book, and agency contracts were just not renewed.  The workforce was scattered to the winds.

Photo by Pete Cannell CC0

In April 2018 the Scottish Government brokered a take over of the company.  The new owners were DF Barnes, a subsidiary of the Edmonton based Canadian company DV Driver.  The Herald on Sunday has recently revealed that DV Driver obtained ownership for £1.  The Government retained a minority stake.

Since the takeover, opportunities to build jackets for major new North Sea windfarms have been up for grabs.  One of these, ‘Neart na Gaoithe’, is just a few miles off the Fife coast from the BiFab yard at Methil.  Another, Seagreen, which, when complete, will be the biggest in Scottish waters, is just a bit further north, off the coast of Angus.  But contracts have gone to overseas yards in Spain, Indonesia, the UAE and China.

So, despite a Scottish Government investment that may reach £52.4 million, BiFab is close to total collapse.  The Scottish and UK Governments argue that despite, or because, of their stake in the firm, European competition rules made it impossible for them to guarantee the BiFab bids.  

The trade unions representing BiFab workers have contested this view. The Courier newspaper noted on October 29th that 

In a legal opinion for the GMB and Unite trade unions, Lord Davidson has described the Scottish Government’s reasoning as “remarkable”, given the looming end of the Brexit transition period and suggested Scottish ministers could have deferred any decision until after Brexit on December 31.

This legal view is clearly true; however, focusing on interpretations of the law misses much more important issues.  The Scottish Government is firmly wedded to the idea that the transition to a zero-carbon economy can be carried through by private enterprise. BiFab is just one of many examples of how this approach fails.  Bids are allocated primarily on price and when the ‘cheapest’ bidder is located on the other side of the world that’s the one that’s chosen.  The fact that this results in massive carbon emissions as jackets are shipped to the coast of Scotland isn’t factored in.  Equally important the bidding system favours international companies that operate on a world stage and take no responsibility for joined up planning of transition in the local economies from which they profit.  

To achieve zero carbon, we need much shorter supply chains, so that construction, energy generation and consumption are brought much closer together.  Demanding that the manufacture of jackets and wind turbines takes place in Scotland is not about putting Scottish workers first but a necessity for the rational use of resources.  Different locations offer different combinations of renewable energy resources, but sustainable energy production is necessary everywhere.  Tackling the climate crisis requires local and global perspectives.  Climate jobs are needed in every part of the world.  It’s important to stress that while construction and energy production should be as local as possible – international solidarity requires that knowledge should be shared freely and that financial and material support is provided to countries in the global south.  This of course is the opposite of what happens now as new innovations are locked into commercial patents.  

Leaving transition to the market relies on the expectation that multiple independent decisions made by individual companies on the basis of maximising profit will achieve the goal of a zero-carbon economy.  It’s an incredibly inefficient approach.  Consider wind, a resource that’s abundant in Scotland.  There has been a rapid growth in offshore wind powered electricity generation but at the same time the numbers working in renewables in Scotland has fallen, reducing local skills and knowledge and impacting on local economies.  A partial transition but one that has been inherently unjust, and which puts obstacles in the path of the full transition that we need.

For the sake of the climate that our children will inherit and for the lives and livelihoods of the present generation there’s a pressing need for trade unionists and climate activists to campaign together for a new approach that integrates social justice with real, immediate practical actions to tackle the climate crisis.  This means:

  • Systematic planning at local and national levels to plan a rapid transition to zero carbon.
  • Large scale public investment in new democratically controlled public enterprises to implement these plans.

These demands may seem a long way off.  But we’ve seen during the pandemic that, when there’s political will, things that would have been considered impossible become possible.  Old laws are thrown out and new laws are written.  We’ve also seen how in the face of a crisis public systems deliver and private companies rake in profits and fail.  

The first and immediate step should be an emergency action plan that takes the BiFab yards into public ownership, reemploys the workforce and puts the skills and knowledge of the workers at the heart of a sustained commitment to develop the yards as hubs for the engineering initiatives that are essential to a worker led just transition.

Pete Cannell (November 25th, 2020)

Covid, Climate and Transition

Mike Downham and Pete Cannell suggest ideas for campaigning priorities that tackle the pandemic, future pandemics and the climate crisis.

A new campaign, ‘Zero Covid’ was launched a week ago.  The Independent SAGE committee of scientists has been arguing for a Zero Covid UK since the summer. This approach is also supported by the Hazards Campaign for workplace safety.  The campaign aims to build a movement that can force UK governments to adopt the Independent Sage proposals as public policy. 

There’s a compelling case that we are living in an age of pandemics.  It’s possible, although by no means certain, that successful vaccination programmes will have had a significant on UK population immunity in 12 – 18 months.  Given the profit motivation of Big Pharma it’s likely to take much longer in the global south. However, the likelihood of a mutation from Covid 19, or one or more completely new viruses over the next 5 years is high.  So, a longer-term strategy for the campaign ought to be to ensure that we live safely in the face of recurrent pandemic.  This is not a new idea – the British government had plans for such contingencies at the start of the millennium, then failed to maintain and update them and trashed the public health infrastructure that was needed for effective pandemic control.

So, one demand that should be campaigned for is that we learn the lessons of Covid and establish a well-funded local based public health service as part of the NHS.  No place for private companies.  It would be a tragedy if we are as ill prepared for the next pandemic as we were for Covid 19.

But we need more, and this is where the link with climate comes in.  To be prepared we need to reimagine and redesign public transport systems so that they are safe to use and carbon free.  We need to build new zero carbon houses and retrofit existing housing stock to high insulation and good ventilation standards.   New public buildings and retrofitted existing public buildings also need to be zero carbon and have good effective ventilation.  All of this is technically possible and is good for health and the environment.

All the key things we need to do to address both virus epidemics and global warming are not only largely the same (it’s very important that we keep stressing this point, though it’s been made before) but also their technical solutions are linked. Pumped air recirculation in buildings reduces virus cross-infection and improves energy efficiency. New bus design, rolled out in quantity production, can incorporate low-carbon motility and virus infection safety in one design, especially if the buses are in the context of no fares (protecting drivers, and passengers too because of reduced queuing and shorter journey times). Workplaces for the construction and maintenance of renewables can be much safer in relation to the spread of virus infection than oil and gas rigs. More people working in non-intensive local food production, whether commercially or in voluntary organisations, will mean more people working outside.

There are some things, like deforestation and food production, with their linked impacts on global warming and the liberation of new viruses, which we have little chance of influencing until we’ve stopped competitive capitalists from exploiting everything and every person for their profit. But these things related to housing, transport, energy production and food production are technically (and politically) achievable now. And if we don’t achieve them now there will be untold additional human suffering.

Image by Artivists at Work