This post by Neil Rothnie was written as a letter to the Herald newspaper but the Herald declined to publish it
It’s North Sea gas price increases that are largely responsible for the cost of living crisis, making energy bills unpayable for growing numbers of people.
90% of the gas we use in our homes comes from the North Sea. Wholesale gas prices were soaring well before Russia invaded Ukraine. So far Ukraine and Russia have collaborated to keep most Russian gas flowing to Europe and finance both sides in this war. There have been no power outages or gas shortages in the UK or Europe.
North Sea gas price increases have not been caused by rising costs of production. There have been no wage increases for oil and gas workers, and no new pipelines or gas platforms built.
So what are the sky high gas prices all about? Supply and demand? Prices pushed up by a global shortage? China, Japan and India, where it is claimed that there are gas shortages, can’t access North Sea gas however much they’d be prepared to pay for it. There are not the facilities in Europe to liquify North Sea gas and there is not a fleet of empty LNG tankers waiting to transport it to Asia.
The oil companies either sell North Sea gas to us at prices people can afford or they drive consumers into cold and hunger. The choice they have made is clear. Profits of Shell, BP and Total in the first 3 months of this year are colossal – £7.5, £5 and £4 billion respectively.
Ordinary people can’t and won’t go on indefinitely paying for oil company profiteering. We can’t just live with the gas and electricity disconnections that are the inevitable result of unaffordable bills. Already Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion are justifiably on the streets engaged in civil disobedience aimed at the oil and gas industry. Far more widespread civil disobedience is surely inevitable as people respond to cold and hunger. Remember the Poll Tax?
Manipulating gas markets to impoverish your customers can’t in any way be described as a “windfall”. It’s an unprovoked and deadly attack by an industry whose time has passed, and a one-off tax won’t cut the mustard.
The plan to slash civil service jobs to free up the cash to meet the cost of living crisis is a perverse response. The industry needs to be taken out of the hands of our own oligarchs. The oil and gas that will have to be produced in the short term, needs to finance the transition that will allow us to stay warm in our homes, and the planet to stay cool enough to remain habitable. We need a plan to insulate our homes properly, and massively expand wind and solar generation to heat and light our homes in a way that doesn’t feed the climate crisis.
This is the opposite of the current oil industry/Government plan to Maximise Economic Recovery of North Sea oil and gas, ie, to produce and burn every barrel of hydrocarbon they can turn a profit on – business as usual.
ScotE3 will have a stall at the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Aberdeen for 25th – 27th April. We’ve produced a leaflet for the delegates. The text is reproduced here.
Everyone knows that we are in a cost-of-living crisis. Most of us in Scotland rely on natural gas for cooking and heating and North Sea gas is a guided missile sent into every home in the country which will drive thousands of new people into poverty and will kill the most vulnerable. Oil and gas producers are making mega profits and demanding money with menaces. They’ve unilaterally torn up the social contract that they operate under and have weaponised gas. The 54% increase on 1st April will be followed by another steep rise later this year.
Before this happened around a quarter of Scots lived in fuel poverty. As a result of the price rises, hundreds of thousands more will be dragged into a position where they are forced to make impossible choices between food and heating. The response from the Tories has been derisory. Their so-called Energy Security Plan does nothing to tackle immediate hardship and doubles down on the most expensive energy options for the longer term – nuclear, oil and gas, hydrogen for heating and carbon capture and storage.
Business as usual
There is a simple reason why the Tories have made these choices. In the face of the climate and cost of living crises they’ve chosen to protect the interests of big oil. It’s not just that they won’t tax the enormous profits that are being made from North Sea Oil and Gas – it’s that they are following the logic of the oil industry’s ‘North Sea Transition Deal’.
A phony deal
The Deal aims to continue the exploitation of North Sea oil and gas up to and beyond 2050. It talks about a net-zero oil and gas basin where the greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas would be captured and stored. This is not going to happen, certainly not in the next few decades, and the consequence will be that the UK will fail to meet its contribution to restricting global temperature rises.
Maintaining profits – wasting resources
Following the ‘Transition Deal’ drives high-cost energy options at every step and leaves working people to pay the price. Under the UK government plan, most of the electricity produced by the new nuclear power stations will be required to produce the hydrogen for domestic heating. Using electricity to produce hydrogen for domestic heating at large scale is hugely inefficient. Moreover, nuclear produces much more carbon emissions over its lifecycle than wind or solar.
There is an alternative. Electricity produced by wind and solar is already much cheaper than that produced by nuclear, oil and gas and the costs of renewables continue to fall. The money the Tories want to spend on new nuclear is enough to retrofit most homes across the UK – creating jobs, improving health and well-being, and cutting energy demand. Moreover, an economy based on renewables results in many more jobs than the fossil fuel and nuclear options.
A challenge for the trade union movement
Right now, industry, unions and both the Westminster and Holyrood governments are signed up to the North Sea Transition deal. It’s time for a decisive shift in policy. Just transition, indeed arguably any transition that restricts temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, is incompatible with the ‘North Sea Transition Deal’.
A new policy for the union movement
Tackling the cost-of-living crisis and the climate crisis means breaking the partnership with big oil that is inherent in the Transition Deal and campaigning for an end to the development of new North Sea oil and gas and the rapid planned phase out of existing fields. Large-scale investment in renewables and a massive programme of retrofitting would result in lower energy prices and reduced carbon emissions. A serious plan would include support for the oil and gas work force while they transition to new jobs and ramping up options for reskilling, education and training in the new industries.
No more subsidies
The oil and gas industry has been subsidised heavily over the lifetime of the North Sea. The subsidies must stop. Working people are suffering because what they pay for energy fuels super profits for big oil and goes into the pockets of the richest in society whose wealth grows as hedge funds speculate on the oil market. There’s plenty
of money to pay for an energy transition.
Among the components of a new policy for the workers movement should be:
Massive investment in wind, solar and tidal energy.
Large-scale expansion of energy storage options.
No more North Sea development.
Taking the North Sea into public ownership and beginning a planned phase out of production.
Support for oil and gas workers to transition to new jobs.
Regulate energy prices to consumers and tax big oil and the rich to end the cost-of-living crisis.
COP26 gave us a glimpse of the potential power when the workers movement and the climate movement come together. Together we can win.
Check out our website at https://scote3.net The resources page includes short briefings designed to be used in the workplace and created under an open license so that you can modify and adapt them providing you acknowledge ScotE3 as the original source of the material. We are keen to produce more briefings and we’d welcome suggestions for new briefings and updates to existing ones. We can also provide speakers for trade union branch meetings and discussions.
In the wake of COP26 in Glasgow, ScotE3 (employment, energy, and environment) have been reassessing our focus.
At the centre of our discussion has been North Sea oil and gas, UK’s major contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. and the imperative “that business as usual” must end and must end soon.
This conviction hasn’t been shifted by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Possibly Putin sees the writing on the wall for oil and gas, the basis of his economic power. He has certainly gone for the breadbasket of Europe, and a country with rich reserves of mineral resources, and in doing so reminded the world that nuclear power is not an alternative to oil and gas.
If we think we’ve identified what is to be done on our patch here in the UK, we’ve also been trying to identify the forces that can achieve it.
It’s not the Government. They are fully behind the oil and gas industry, and the North Sea Transition Deal struck with the industry and designed to perpetuate it. If they are to play a progressive role at all, they will have to be dragged on side screaming and kicking. They do know the transition is inevitable, but they can’t break habits of several lifetimes, and can only imagine doing what the North Sea oil and gas industry allows them to imagine, and that results in policies that protect the power of big oil, invests in false solutions and cuts to emissions are too little and too late.
Despite the increasing number of trade unionists who recognise the importance of climate action the major unions are still signed up to the partnership with the oil and gas industry through the North Sea Transition Deal.
The North Sea oil and gas workers are another story altogether. Dormant for 30 years since the Piper Alpha disaster where the North Sea oil and gas industry killed 167 men, they are between a rock and a hard place. They produce the gas that’s being used to loot as well as heat the homes of the poor, and that drives climate change. But they are also subject to the whims of an oil and gas market that periodically throws thousands of them out of work, dictates wage cuts, imposes punitive work schedules, and will dump them again as the transition takes place – just as the coal miners were dumped before them. If the transition is going to be “just” to North Sea oil and gas workers, they’re going to have to demand the training and jobs in a sustainable alternative. We think they need to be invited to the debate.
The climate movement, unique amongst the players here, is energetic and imaginative and has made massive inroads into popular consciousness. These predominantly young people have transformed the debate, and by direct action have laid out the shocking implications of climate change that the science has been exploring now for many years. It is getting progressively more impossible to say that you just didn’t know. Over the past few years, the focus of the climate movement has turned towards the North Sea oil and gas industry. Its current trajectory will take it into more and more direct conflict with that industry. The climate movement and the oil workers have a common enemy.
Now, as gas prices go sky high it looks very likely that masses of people are about to be drawn into open conflict with the oil and gas industry and the Government. Here in the UK it is widely predicted that hundreds of thousands of families will be driven into poverty for the first time. Leaving the vulnerable and poorest in the cold, or hungry, or both. There has been no increase in the cost of producing North Sea gas. There is no shortage of North Sea gas. The oil and gas producers are profiteering from the rise in prices as are the hedge funds and the super-rich who drive the crazy casino style operation of the spot market for hydrocarbons.
Many people will have no option but to not pay the increases. The rest of us will have to decide whether we sit in our expensively warmed homes and watch them freeze. Either that or we’ll have to be part of a struggle that the poor can’t avoid. Is this the moment the struggles of climate movement meet up with the struggle of masses of people?
Some things which we think are worth campaigning for are:
establish a publicly funded and democratically accountable Scottish Climate Service to coordinate, fund and drive forward the transition
cease exploration and development of new oil and gas fields in the North Sea
initiate a phased close-down of oil and gas production, to be completed by 2032
provide free training and retraining for workers displaced as oil and gas activity is run down
guarantee employment in new climate jobs for oil and gas workers
regulate the renewables industry on and around the North Sea to ensure that wages and conditions are protected
North Sea oil and gas workers must face no more redundancies
As the industry is wound down, workers must be furloughed until they are retrained and re-employed
We know this list is incomplete and we don’t have all the answers. We almost certainly haven’t even asked all the relevant questions. We believe that working out the demands that we fight for is a job for oil and gas workers and the climate movement together.
We’re inviting the climate movement to join us in this discussion. There needs to be the widest cooperation if we’re going to constantly update the strategy that’ll take this existential struggle forward. We do have ideas. We need them to be challenged, amended, scrapped – whatever.
We’d love it if your organisation could discuss this letter at whatever levels, local groups and/or national organisation that you think appropriate.
Whatever your response we’d like to publish your reactions to this letter on the Scot.E3 blog https://scote3.net
We plan to hold a conference in the autumn of 2022 on how we can play our part in the struggle to shut down the North Sea and replace it with zero carbon energy systems. We invite you to join the conference planning group.
We are holding a workshop on the North Sea at the Global Climate Jobs Network’s International conference taking place from 3-5th June and we invite you to join us in working out the plan for the workshop.
[The text above is version 1.1 (updated 6th April 2022, it’s work in progress – we expect to make changes in the light of feedback]
Retired oil worker and XR Scotland activist Neil Rothnie responds to the recently published XR strategy for 2022. Neil argues that the strategy is weakened by not making specific reference to the North Sea when North Sea Oil and Gas remains at the heart of both the UK and Scottish governments energy strategies.
Begin a planned rundown of North Sea oil and gas production without delay.
That’s a real ‘demand’ and is directed at the UK oil industry and the UK and Scottish Governments.
North Sea oil and gas is a major contributor to the greenhouse gases that are the UK’s contribution to global heating.
So why does the Extinction Rebellion UK Strategy 2022, on the fossil economy, make no mention of North Sea oil and gas?
The new 2022 strategy document talks instead about End(ing) The Fossil Fuel Economy in general, and specifically demands No New Fossil Fuel Investment, No New Fossil Fuel Licences, and an End (to) Fossil Fuel Subsidies Now.
But – End the Fossil Fuel Economy – is not a demand. It’s a slogan! And the three specific demands could be met in full today without making a jot of difference to the climate catastrophe that’s unfolding.
Because without one more penny being invested in the North Sea, without one more licence issued, and without a penny more in public subsidy, everything is already in place to ensure that North Sea oil and gas fields will, unless someone puts a stop to it, produce more than the UK’s share of global greenhouse gases that will heat the atmosphere to way over +1.5 degrees, and trigger the irreversible climate change that leads, according to the science as I understand it, to mass extinctions of life forms on the planet.
A similar scenario is set to be repeated all over the world. In Norway, the Gulf of Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the China’s coalfields, etc etc. So, it’s a global problem that has to be addressed in each locality.
In the UK, we have a responsibility to begin to choke back North Sea oil and gas production. In the US the responsibility to end fracking and wind down hydrocarbon production from the Gulf of Mexico falls, in the main, to Americans. In Russia to Russians . . .
We must have the confidence that the peoples in each and every other fossil production zone will act at least as decisively as we will. We can talk to them and encourage them, but above all we need to lead by example. The main enemy is at home. It’s our responsibility to fight our corner.
And the biggest support we can give to the masses of people in the global south who face climate chaos earlier and harder than us, is to end North Sea oil and gas production.
One massive implication of “disappearing” North Sea Oil and Gas from a UK strategy for fossil fuels is that you also “disappear” the North Sea oil and gas workers and their rights and their responsibilities.
Oil & gas production is going to go. Sooner rather than later if the climate and our grandchildren are to have a chance. Oil workers must not be shafted like the coal miners were before them.
If you are an oil and gas worker. a climate activist, a trade unionist – if you live in a community that hosts the industry and the workers – or if you’re young and fearful for your future, put your name to our demands*.
No more redundancies of oil and gas workers.
Workers whose jobs are threatened as the oil industry is wound down, must be furloughed until they are retrained and re-employed.
North Sea wind jobs must be made to pay North Sea wage rates.
*These three demands are still in draft but will form part of a new Scot.E3 campaign in 2022.
Simon Pirani is the author of ‘Burning Up – A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption’* – Simon recently spoke on Fossil Fuel Systems at one of. series of events discussion issues around ecosocialism. The video of his introduction provides a very clear and comprehensive account of how fossil fuel systems are embedded in modern capitalist economies and of the challenges of breaking from an economic system based on these fuels.
Simon blogs at the People and Nature website which carries lots of articles that will be of interest to followers of Scot.E3.
* we have a small number of copies of Simon’s book available at the reduced price of £11 (postage extra) – email email@example.com if you’d be interested in a copy.
The latest in our series of briefings. Like all of the briefings this one is just two sides of A4 and is published under a Creative Commons license which means you are welcome to share, adapt and reuse the content. Download a PDF version here.
Check through the news bulletins and the financial papers and you’ll find hydrogen in the news. Big energy companies, the Westminster and Holyrood governments and some trade unions are all heralding hydrogen as a ‘green’ alternative to the natural gas which most of us use for heating and cooking. For example, SGN who run Scotland’s gas network are promoting a plan in which hydrogen would be produced and stored at the St Fergus gas terminal, north of Peterhead. It envisages starting to use hydrogen in Aberdeen and then extending the hydrogen network to the rest of the northeast coast and the central belt by 2045.
Natural gas used for heating and cooking accounts for around 30% of the UK’s carbon emissions. In contrast burning hydrogen for heat results in zero emissions. So, it appears that replacing natural gas with hydrogen is a no brainer. In this briefing we’ll explain why that’s not the case.
Grey, blue and green?
You will hear talk about grey, blue, and green hydrogen. The colours refer to how the hydrogen is produced – and it’s the production method that determines the impact of hydrogen on the environment.
Grey hydrogen is made from natural gas. Almost all the hydrogen that’s in use now is produced in this way. World-wide production currently amounts to 70 million tonnes. Greenhouse gases are a by-product of the production process, and current production has a similar impact on global warming to the whole aviation industry.
Much of the current hype is over blue hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas in the same way as grey – the difference is that the production process incorporates carbon capture and storage. Greenhouse gases are stored rather than released to the atmosphere. Using blue hydrogen for all our domestic heating and cooking would require carbon capture on a massive scale. Large-scale carbon capture is untested, the technology for capture is not yet available and there are serious concerns about the long-term safety of large-scale storage. The production process for blue hydrogen is energy intensive and needs large amounts of green electricity. One example – Northern Gas Networks have a plan to convert domestic gas supplies to hydrogen. The aim is to have converted 15.7 million homes by 2050. This would require 8 million tonnes of hydrogen and need the equivalent of 60 production plants of the size of the largest currently operational plus a huge deployment of unproven carbon capture and storage technology.
Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysing water – if that electricity is from a renewable source the process is zero carbon. However, the process requires even more green electricity than producing blue hydrogen. The NGN scheme to supply 15.7 million homes would require around seven times as much wind generated electricity as is currently produced in the UK.
Generating electricity to provide the energy to ‘reform’ natural gas or electrolyse water into hydrogen and then using the hydrogen for heat is inherently inefficient. Direct use of electricity is cheaper, more efficient and would require much less generating capacity.
So why the hydrogen hype?
A new hydrogen economy (dependent on carbon capture and storage technology) is at the heart of the North Sea Transition Deal, dreamed up by the industry body Oil and Gas UK, published by the UK government in March 2021 and endorsed by Holyrood. The transition deal aims at continuing extraction of oil and gas through to 2050 and beyond. It is a costly diversion. To be sure of cutting emissions with the speed that is required we need to phase out oil and gas and invest in proven technologies that are based on renewable energy sources.
Ed Matthew Associate Director at independent climate and energy think tank E3G says hydrogen is the wrong choice for heating homes. Blue hydrogen (manufactured from natural gas) needs CCS so would be massively expensive and keeps us hooked on gas. Green hydrogen (made by electrolysis using renewable electricity) is 4 times less efficient than using heat pumps. “Hydrogen is being pushed by the gas industry. Beware.” Dave Toke, reader in energy politics at Aberdeen University agrees. He calls it: “the start of one of the greatest pieces of greenwash that have been committed in the UK.”
There is a place for hydrogen in a new sustainable economy. Hydrogen fuel cells supplied with green hydrogen are likely to be an integral part of a full decarbonised economy. Fuel cells work by using hydrogen to produce electricity which can then power a motor instead of using battery power, such as for electric vehicles.
Hydrogen fuel cells are currently better suited than batteries for long distance transport and to transport heavy loads. There are likely to be applications in energy storage and in some very specialised processes that are difficult to decarbonise. Sea transport may be a case in point
The main message of this briefing is that the hydrogen + CCS strategy is designed to maintain the profits of the big energy company’s and will not achieve the cuts in carbon emissions that are needed. It puts profit before people and planet. There are alternatives that will work.
To decarbonise heat, we need retrofitted insulation, heat pumps and district heating schemes on a mass scale that can only be achieved by the public sector.
Firms producing filthy-dirty “grey” hydrogen must be required to take action to reduce the horrendous levels of greenhouse gas emissions they produce.
Hydrogen use must be limited to applications that are socially useful and don’t add to the climate crisis.
Part of the coalition deal between the Scottish Greens and the SNP was the allocation of £500 million to support the creation of new sustainable jobs. There are indications that all of this funding may now go to CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage projects). One time chair of the Wood Group, Sir Ian Wood is a strong advocate of CCS and has been vocal in his criticism of the Westminster government’s failure to fund the Acorn CCS project in Scotland. The Wood Group lobbies and argues for CCS. Their website asserts that ‘If we are to achieve a net-zero world, carbon capture and storage infrastructure is a necessity and needs to scale up rapidly.’ Scot.E3 believes that CCS is a central plank of Oil and Gas UK’s strategy to continue the policy of maximum economic extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea. Choosing to spend the £500 million on CCS would constitute big step down a road that the Oil Industry wishes to travel and a setback for the campaign for a rapid just transition away from fossil fuels. There are many other projects that could be funded.
We are pleased to publish this post that has been submitted to the site. The author has asked to remain anonymous.
One of the SNP’s proposed solutions to climate change is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This is very dangerous in our mission to decarbonise Scotland’s economy and provide other countries with the tools to do the same. On the face of it CCS may seem like another tool in the box to reduce carbon emissions, and that might be right if it weren’t for the very strong vested interests.
There are very strong arguments that CCS can’t work for technical reasons – such as the inability to actually avoid the carbon being stored leaking. There are also strong economic reasons it can’t work – wind and solar are already cheaper than fossil fuels in most markets, with plenty of scope for further reduction. Adding an additional cost to the production of fossil fuel energy makes it even less competitive.
So why are fossil fuel interests so keen on CCS?
There are two reasons why CCS is favoured by fossil fuel executives who want to portray themselves as concerned about climate change. The first is that it allows them to continue extraction of the oil and gas that their company’s valuations are based on. The second is that it distracts from other clean technologies that will actually decarbonise energy, such as renewables and storage. It does this by ‘crowding out’ renewables investment.
So CCS will do two things, even if it isn’t viable. It will allow more drilling for fossil fuels and it will divert investment from renewables and storage.
The argument put forward by Oil and Gas UK is that CCS means we can continue to drill in Scottish waters and that those resources can be made ‘carbon neutral’ through CCS.
The danger particularly comes because the UK Government has chosen not to support the Scottish CCS project. This has created an opportunity for the vested fossil fuel interests in Scotland to argue that the Scottish Government should use the money set aside for a worker-led just transition from oil and gas jobs should be diverted to supporting CCS. The £500m negotiated by the Greens as part of the coalition deal for clean jobs to replace oil and gas is now at risk from a dead-end technology that exists mainly to prevent the end of fossil fuel drilling.
This illustrates exactly how CCS will crowd out renewables investment, but worse it will rob workers of the jobs that they need in truly clean industries.
The fossil fuel industry tried the same approach with fracking in the last decade. We urgently need a campaign to persuade politicians who have fallen for the CCS lies and greenwash that this is another wrong turn. At the moment, that means SNP ministers and backbenchers.
There are other posts relevant to CCS on this site:
Platform has released the trailer for Offshore, an independent documentary about working in offshore oil and gas and renewable energy. The film explores what the coming energy transition means for workers and communities around the UK North Sea.
Offshore looks at how communities and regions have been impacted by past industrial decline, the risks workers face in an increasingly precarious industry, and how they can organise for the future.
The climate crisis means we must rethink our energy systems: where we get energy from, how it’s produced and who benefits from it. We must answer the questions of what to do next – and how to organise for a just transition – together.
You can check out the website, sign up for a community screening and download the trailer via this link.
On the 20th September 2021 we cohosted with Lighthouse Books a discussion on the recently published book ‘Crude Britannia – how oil shaped a nation’. The discussion was introduced by Terry Macalister one of the books authors. This is the video of Terry’s introduction.
For anyone after a copy of the book, you can order Crude Britannia from the Lighthouse website & get 15% off using the code SCOT-E-THREE
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?
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.
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.