Ex North Sea oil worker Neil Rothnie asks why the Scottish Government’s updated climate plan is so quiet on North Sea oil and gas. This piece was published as a letter in the Herald newspaper on 30th December 2020
SCOTTISH Climate Change Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, has been giving her opinion on the Government’s updated Climate Change Plan. But nowhere in her Herald on Sunday article (“‘COP26 is a chance for us all to play our part in debate’”, December 20), or even in the plan itself, do we get a glimpse of the reality of climate change.
Climate change is increasingly experienced by people across the globe as extreme weather events that are already destroying lives. It’s experienced by the natural world as rising temperatures, the melting of ice and the destruction of habitats and the threat of species extinctions.
There’s no sense of this in the report. The term “climate change” is scattered throughout it like punctuation marks, and carries about as much meaning as a comma.
There is scientific consensus about climate change. It’s caused by burning fossil fuels which give rise to greenhouse gases (carbon emissions) that cause the atmosphere to heat, and progressively destabilise global climates.
The oil industry, and the North Sea where 75 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions originate, have been “disappeared” from the Government’s plan. It’s one area where the UK and Scottish governments are completely in step. Their plan for the North Sea is “Maximising Economic Recovery”. And if that isn’t clear enough, just think, “business as usual”.
Maybe you thought that a climate change plan might concentrate on how we might replace fossil fuel production with renewable energy production in a planned way, that protects the workers, their families and communities by helping them transition to work in a sustainable industry.
But no. Oil and gas must stay, and stay in the hands of the giant corporations, and suffer the vagaries of a basket case of an oil market that gives us periodic price collapses and catapults thousands of workers onto the dole. Twelve thousand have gone so far this time. Another 18,000 or so expected to go soon.
Now it seems, our new future best friends are to be “hydrogen” and “carbon capture”. We’re to continue sucking the hydrocarbons from under the North Sea, then spend a fortune taking the carbon out, leaving hydrogen. Then we’ll pump the carbon back under the North Sea. Is this feasible at scale? Globally?
A third of North Sea gas comes ashore at St Fergus where by 2024 we “could” be able to remove 340,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year – a measly one 800th of the 280 million tons of greenhouse gasses that were produced by burning North Sea oil and gas last year.
Is Ms Cunningham going to be standing alongside UK Minister Alok Sharma to welcome the COP26 circus to Glasgow this coming year? If so, what leadership is she going to be showing Saudi, Russian, US and Nigerian delegates? Should they follow our lead and maximise economic recovery of their own oil and gas resources? And hope to decarbonise it and pump the carbon back underground?
The updated Climate Change Plan does not look like the Government has the measure of carbon emissions or the oil and gas industry. They all need public scrutiny.
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.
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,
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.
Climate crises, Covid-19 and a looming global recession: how many more storms can the N Sea oil and gas industry take?In part one of this report, published in April 2020, Brian Parkin looked at the combined impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and a world economic downturn on the UK offshore oil and gas industry. In this brief second paper, he looks at the emerging trends from the second half of 2020 onwards and how the global hydrocarbons sector will face up to a post-Covid-19 world in which renewables may well begin to dictate the shape of energy things to come.
50… and nearly out
The North Sea oil and gas industry, in defiance of many forecasts and expectations, is now 50 years old. At the time of its baptism, governments were obsessed with balance of payments columns as well as the commitment to the post-war social compact of an economy run at levels of full employment. It was also a shared view that with an unshakeable belief in government intervention and technological innovation, things could be done.
Initial interest in UK offshore (North Sea and UK Irish Sea sectors) lay in the deposits of natural gas and the potential for a reliable and long-term resource of energy for, initially, domestic (household) consumers. The growing estimates from c.1970 onwards also promised a resource that could be extended to industrial space heating and manufacturing processes. Regarding oil, it was clear from early chemical analysis that UKCS crude oil was unsuitable for refining into the Heavy Fuel Oil required for power generation, and so the North Sea offered nothing in the way of breaking energy dependency on indigenous coal- and the National Union of Mineworkers.
However, oil from the Forties- and a little later- the Brent fields provided an ideal crude grade suitable for refining into the required range of transport fuels. The value of this asset though, was not appreciated until the global oil shock of 1972, when a largely Arab dominated OPEC punished the Western economies for their alignment with Israel in the Yom Kippur war.
In terms of petroleum supply security, the North sea has paid off. For the better part of half a century the UK has enjoyed near total security of indigenous supply. Apart from the 1984-85 miners’ strike when the UK government had to fuel the coal- fired power stations with Heavy Fuel Oil- which cannot be refined from North Sea crudes- almost all oil crudes (and distillates for aviation fuel)- have come from the North Sea. And even now, with North Sea oil capacity falling, the UK remains 95% petroleum self-sufficient.
Global oil …passing its prime?
As we have previously noted, all fossil fuels have been under the pressure of a climate consensus to conform to CO2 limits by reducing production as well as emissions from production operations. The response of the oil and gas companies as well as the OPEC cartel has been- with some success- to lobby governments as well as attempting to massage public opinion away from climate concerns. To these ends they have now failed. But as ever resourceful, the oil – and also gas – interests have been redeploying their considerable financial interest elsewhere – albeit grudgingly. After years of ‘scientific’ misinformation and fake data, the oil and gas industry faces an irreversible shift in both public opinion and scientific consensus.
At 2015 the view of the oil and gas lobby was that demand for petroleum would begin to peak in the early 2030’s – albeit tapering off slowly into the future. But by 2019 the industry had significantly changed its forecasts. Even before the combined whammy of the onset of a world economic turndown and the Covid-19 pandemic, BP, Shell, Total, DNV-GL, the IEA and OPEC had come to the uncomfortable conclusion that oil peak demand had already been reached. Big oil exceptions to this forecast have remained as the US giants, Exxon/Mobil and Chevron, who have both continued to set aside some $30 billion investment capital in further oil exploration and developments.
As early as 2016, Shell had established its New Energy Division; a new venture into renewables generation, high capacity batteries, grid management and hydrogen. This has come at the expense of tar sands investment and shale oil extraction and refining. The company has also undertaken a major restructuring in order to free up capital investment for diversification into non-petroleum activities.
Also in October 2019, BP declared its intention to be a zero-carbon operation by 2030. And, in that year, BP entered into a $1.1 billion joint venture with Equinor Energy for the purpose of becoming a major player in offshore wind power. This was with the expectation of offshore wind appreciating six-fold to 190 Gwe installed by 2030. (But just to get things in proportion, the OECD now estimates that globally there will have to be a $6.3 trillion per annum investment to convert energy systems into renewables in order to meet the 1.5oC climate mitigation target for 2030.
The repo-man cometh
With financial data changing almost frantically day by day, it is not easy to reach a reliable estimate of the overall health of the global oil industry. Nevertheless, recent figures show the overall scene against which the North Sea industry fares. But first some raw data:
Oil production million barrels per day (Mbpd) by country 2019 (96 producers)
The global daily production for 2019-20 was 80,622,000 bpd of which 68% was produced by the top 10 producers with an overlapping 44% produced by OPEC member states. The average output for the top 3 producers was 11 mbpd. By the beginning of 2020 the same producers had an average output of 12.3 mbpd – a significant overproduction given the emerging market conditions for the year.
With signs of a global economic recession as early as September 2019, it was clear that at 15.043 mbpd, the US was entering 2020 at a significant rate of over-production. The sustained production rate of the previous year began to depress the world traded price of oil to an unsustainably low level for many OPEC+Russia producers – hence the output war of OPEC to depress output in order to increase prices. But within weeks it was clear that such a strategy was failing – hence the output switch to increase production in order to break the back of the relatively high cost US shale oil sector.
But within weeks of this price/output war, the already global markets were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic – with the second week in April seeing the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fall to minus $40 dollars per barrel. After several weeks of price bounces, the world traded price of the Brent and WTI grades settled at just below $35 per barrel. Since then a fitful recovery has seen North Sea Brent begin to trade at around $40 per barrel- a price that barely covers the combined production and development costs of c.$38 pb.
Much regarding the likely fortunes of the North Sea oil and gas industry was covered in the first paper but if we want to examine the drive behind the global plight of the hydrocarbon industries, it would be better to look at the biggest producer and consumer of oil and gas- the USA.
When the bottom of the oil market fell through the floor in 2014 it was the US with some 25% of its oil and gas production from shale ‘plays’ that took the greatest hit. Since then, and not without considerable help from the US Treasury, the US has bounced back to be the biggest hydrocarbon player in the world – and with a Congressional act in 2016, a net exporter of oil and gas into the world market. And prior to the combined recession/Covid crisis, even the shale extraction sector was doing well at an oil price of c.£65 pb.
Immediately prior to March 2020 most US producers could break even at a $46> pb price. But in order to kick-start the many needed DUC’s (Developed but Uncompleted wells) required to maintain medium-term production, an additional $6.00 pb was required. Also, at that time it was reckoned that the bullish confidence of the industry was waning with an estimated 66% of oil company CEO’s of the view that 2020 had seen the peak in oil demand coming and going. Consequently, by April the fall in demand in the US had resulted in a 20% excess in capacity with a subsequent registration in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection orders. If we want to measure the historical scale of this default, then the post-2014 crash of 2016 would be a good comparison:
2016 oil bankruptcy debt $56.8 bn
2020 oil bankruptcy to date $89 bn
Expected 2020 debt $134 bn
Furthermore, on the current market estimates it is expected that a further roll-over debt of at least £100 bn can be expected to the end of the 2020-21 financial year. Also, although the number of individual bankruptcies are so far lower, the capital size per company failure is much higher. In 2016 the failures amounted to $56.8 billion. But in 2020 to date the total is $89 billion and is expected to reach $134 billion by the end of the year. And as each company has been debt financed with no failure insurance, it is reckoned that the banks would be lucky to recover 35 cents in the $US in the event of a winding-up order.
In conclusion, with no foreseeable growth in oil and gas demand and a totally unstable market deterring future field developments, a ‘self-levelling’ market price of <$40 pb- probably struck by the bigger OPEC members and the dominant oil companies, much of the worlds marginal reserve/high cost capacity will be squeezed out. Certainly, the crash to $35 pb is a price that even the bigger and lower cost producers would find it hard to live with. This much was revealed by the leaked news that OPEC’s leading member Saudi Arabia reckoned that a sustained price of $50 pb would be the most favourable price to 2030 in order to allow margins to cover the cost of future field developments.
But whatever, the enduring relationship between US big oil and the military-imperialist project is likely to see the hydrocarbon industry not go out quietly- particularly as the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council – and Exxon/Mobil insist on peak oil as far ahead as 2030. But those the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
Beyond the North Sea
The economic viability of oil and gas have always been predicated on the myth that all other sources of energy are uncompetitive and/or only so in the distant future. Petroleum, of course is mainly used as a feed-stock for mainly transport fuels – crude oil for refining into petrol (gasoline) and condensates into diesel and aviation fuels.
And by far the largest contributor today of global CO2 emissions derives from petroleum extracted transport fuels. But sticking with North Sea Brent as refined at Grangemouth (Petrochina) or Total’s Humber refineries we see the following product percentages:
(It should also be noted that the Ineos plant in the Grangemouth complex processes methane for conversion into a feedstock for plastics manufacture)
Of course the fate of some 4,000 workers and their families at Grangemouth now hang in the balance with the likely demise of hydrocarbons- both as transport fuels and plastic materials.
In April 2020 the OECD anticipated a year in which at least 1 million oil and gas industry workers would lose their jobs – a calculation which must include many thousands of North Sea workers. But there does seem to be a levelling off – possibly due to a convergence of strategic thinking on the part of OPEC and the oil ‘majors’ that a sustainable price of $45 pd could be struck over the next period – a price that would strike out both the higher cost OPEC members as well as other high cost sectors such as US shaleand most deep water operations.
On the other hand, the anticipated rise in demand for more and more offshore wind capacity – ideal for Scottish waters – along with an expected Compound Annual Growth Rate of matching large scale lithium/ion battery capacity to match incoming wind/wave/tidal and solar units.
The future is full of dangers and hope- and if the rage generated by the threatened loss of 20,000 miners jobs in 1984 could the reproduced many times over again in order to demand a Just Transition for the threatened tens of thousands of oil and gas sector workers, then the future is full of hope.
This post by Gabriel Levy was first published on Tuesday 29th September on the People and Nature website. We are pleased to repost it here with permission.
Most UK oil workers would consider switching to another industry – and, if given the option to retrain, more than half would choose to work on renewable energy, a survey published today shows.
The survey blasts a hole in the argument by trade union leaders that every last drop of oil must be produced, supposedly to preserve jobs. Actually, workers are ready to move away from fossil fuel production – as long as they can work and their families don’t suffer.
The 1383 offshore workers who responded to the survey crave job security, above all. Nearly half of them had been laid off or furloughed since oil prices crashed in March.
Many complained about precarious employment and the contract labour now rife on the North Sea.
The survey’s authors seem to be the first people who have actually asked workers what they think.
The Scottish government has a comfortably-funded Just Transition Commission, including trade union chiefs, that recently ran a consultation on its interim report.
But it was campaign groups, working with activists on the ground, who bothered to talk to offshore workers. The survey, distributed via social media and targeted advertising, garnered 1546 responses. The results excluded replies by 163 people who work in midstream or downstream industries, and are focused on the 1383 respondents who work upstream. That’s a representative sample: about 4.5% of the workforce.
One of the survey’s most sobering results is that, when asked if they had heard of a “just transition”, a staggering 91% of survey respondents said no. (The term “just transition”, nowadays used and misused by politicians, was coined by trade union militants in the 1990s to define the need to fight for social justice during the switch away from fossil fuel burning and other ecologically ruinous practices.)
The Offshore report’s authors comment:
Clearly, campaigners and NGOs lobbying for just transition, and policymakers tasked with implementing one, have failed to reach oil and gas communities – the people who ought to be most central to transition plans.
Despite not sharing vocabulary with the chattering classes, North Sea workers are very clear that the future lies away from oil and gas.
Asked, “would you consider moving to a job outside of the oil and gas industry?”, 81.7% said yes, 7% said no and 10% said they did not know. The survey’s authors commented:
The fact that a huge majority of workers are interested in leaving the industry speaks volumes about the stability and future of oil and gas. There are of course a multitude of reasons why anyone would consider changing jobs, but it is clearly that the offshore workforce is willing to make large lifestyle changes given the opportunity.
In case studies and written responses, the vast majority of offshore workers state that they are fed up with the lack of security, decreasing employment rights and hostile conditions.
Of the 7% who would not consider moving, the three main reasons given were that they were close to retirement age; that the offshore work schedule allowed them to spend time with their families; and concern that their skills would not be transferable.
Asked what was most important to them in considering a move, respondents replied: (1) job security (contract length, pension, etc), 58%; (2) pay, 21%; (3) similar work schedule, 11%; (4) health and safety regulations, 5%.
The survey’s authors reported “a palpable exhaustion with the precarious nature of work offshore”.
North Sea workers are also ready to participate in the transition to renewable energy production, judging by the survey.
Asked, “if you could receive training or education to help you move to a new part of the energy sector, what education or skills training would you be interested in?”, and allowed to choose as many of ten options as they liked, the responses were:
Offshore wind 53%
Rig decommissioning 38%
Carbon capture and storage 26%
Non-energy sector 20%
Solar installation 19%
Geothermal technologies 18%
Battery technologies 16%
Electrical engineering 13%
A barrier to the transition to renewable energy is the lack of adequately-funded training schemes, the survey showed. Respondents complained that they are expected to pay for courses and qualifications themselves – and the bills are counted in thousands of pounds.
Survey respondents criticised the lack of government support for workers:
The overwhelming majority [of respondents] asked for some form of training, support to leave the industry or investment in renewables. Other prevalent themes included a need to invest in decommissioning, financial support and local supply chains.
The report ends by saying that Platform, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace will be running a participatory consultation of oil and gas workers across the UK. “Workshops will enable energy workers to draft policy demands for a transition that works for them, and a renewables industry they want to work in.”
The report urges “energy workers, union branches, local communities, environmental groups or other stakeholders” to get involved.
Today’s report shows that North Sea workers are well aware that the false choice that trade union leaders talk about – fossil-fuel production or unemployment – has nothing to do with reality.
On the contrary, a move out of the oil industry could be, from workers’ point of view, a chance to say goodbye to precarious contracts and the constant fear of sudden lay-offs.
Offshore workers’ readiness to retrain to work on renewable energy, as shown in the survey, strikes a refreshing contrast with trade union officials’ approach. They back the oil companies’ and governments’ plans to keep pumping oil until there is no more money to be made from it.
This approach is not only incompatible with combating dangerous global warming, but also avoids focusing on the really urgent job of closing down oil and gas production and planning other futures for workers and communities (as NGOs have argued in the Sea Change report, for example).
In April, when the oil price slump triggered a new wave of lay-offs, the union bosses reiterated their sympathy for “a longer term investment strategy” in oil, rather than accelerating the switch to non-fossil technologies. The Unite, GMB, RMT, Nautilus International, BALPA and Prospect unions all fell in line, rather than treating the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to leave behind the fossil-fuel-centred economy.
Surely what is needed now is a real discussion in communities and among workers about how to shape the just transition, to achieve social justice and to contribute to tackling climate change. Hopefully, the participatory consultation proposed in today’s report will be part of this. GL, 29 September 2020.
Comments by North Sea workers (from the report)
On precarious work …
■ As I was self employed prior to April, the company put me on a PAYE contract even though the government delayed its implementation of the IR35 rule [rules that apply to off-payroll work contracts]. Consequently I now earn less, have to pay for all my courses out of my wages, and I have no employee safeguards or protection. It seems the oil companies have got away with everything but the workforce gets hammered. […] A union won’t stop this, it needs government intervention to hold these companies to account in the way they are treating the entire workforce.
■ I’ve gone to agencies who employ contractors as staff, and have had to go back as an independent contractor and take a 25% pay cut. This is happening on a wide scale. It’s very attractive to companies because they have to take on the risks of employees. I fear in the long term that IR35s will allow for companies to get rid of workers whenever they want. They have zero risk, they can take 150 guys and then get rid of 150 guys six months later.
On retraining …
■ At my last job […] our safety guy had worked in oil for 15-20 years. He applied for a job on [a wind farm] and it was going to be offshore. He was told he’d have to do the offshore survival course for wind. If he wanted the job he would have to spend at least £1000 for offshore wind qualifications. But the main theory behind offshore survival is surviving a helicopter crash, and it’s the same helicopter if you are going offshore to a wind turbine or an oil rig. Even a half day conversion course would be better, because as it stands it’s perceived as a money-making scam.
■ We need retraining and a job at the end of it. I can’t get any work. I was an agency worker so I get no money or help whilst not working. I have to use the money I have previously earned to live. I can’t claim one single penny from the government, it’s soul destroying. I am 52 years old and I feel my life is finished already.
■ Offer courses either free or heavily subsidised, unlike the last downturn in oil and gas where it was an absolute nightmare to get funding for retraining. They made it so difficult and unrealistic that the local governments basically pilfered the funds for themselves. They should offer better rates than what is given from the completely useless and proven to be absolutely abysmal Universal Credit. No-one can survive on that.
On the energy transition …
■ Up until now we’ve been quite reliant on oil and gas for transport, heating and generation of electricity, and obviously that’s going to have to change. […] If we want to look at training people towards understanding how we maintain our planet, it’s really important that people understand that there are ideas out there that are fantastic. But of course, not all of them are that sustainable, including biomass. I’m interested in a degree in tidal generation, mostly because we live near Montrose and there’s a three square mile basin that fills with seawater every day. […] It empties and fills twice a day, and I can’t help but think ‘surely we could be taking advantage of that’.
A very important report has been published today by Platform that collates the results of an extensive survey of the views of more than a thousand offshore oil and gas workers on their lives, the industry they work in and energy transition. We’ll publish more on the report over the next few days but we strongly recommend downloading the full version.
Front cover of the report
Key survey results include:
81% of offshore workers would consider leaving the industry
43% had been made redundant or furloughed since March 2020
91% of respondents had not heard of the term ‘just transition’
Given the option of retraining to work elsewhere in the energy sector, more than half would be interested in renewables and offshore wind.
Over 50% of workers deemed government support at all levels “nowhere near enough”
Current job security satisfaction was rated 1.9 out of 5, with 58% of respondents also identifying job security as their top priority in considering changing industries
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.
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.
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.