Why have the oil industry and the North Sea been ‘disappeared’ from the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan?

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

Image – Dornoch Firth, Pete Cannell CC0

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.

A watershed moment for Mossmorran

Following another intense period of flaring from the Exxon gas plant at Mossmorran we interviewed Linda Holt and James Glen from the Mossmorran Action Group who talked about the response from the communities living close to the plant and the wider significance of the campaign.

In Linda’s view ‘we’ve reached a watershed moment’ … ‘people have absolutely had enough – SEPA (the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) were amazed at the number of complaints’ (more than 700).  She talks about the importance of the local demonstration at the plant on Saturday 17th October and the way in which views have shifted towards the necessity of closure.  In this context care for the livelihoods of the workers at the plant is critical.  Fife Council passed a motion about 15 months ago calling for an independent inquiry and for the start of work on just transition – this urgently needs to start happening.  However, the campaign still needs to win the support of the Scottish government who currently avoid any serious response by hiding behind SEPA.

Video update

There were protests at the gas plant and at the Scottish Parliament on October 17th

New website for North Sea workers

Press Release – Tuesday October 13

Today a new oil and gas workers’ website prises open a window onto the North Sea, allowing a view of the Gannet platform.

Last week, under conditions of intense radio silence, Gannet operator Shell carried out a major down-man due to an outbreak of COVID-19 on board the oil & gas production facility.

In this period of deadly pandemic and necessary transition from fossil to renewable energy, silence is not an option for those who stand to lose most.

Now energy workers on the North Sea have a new meeting place where conversation can take place, news and views can be exchanged and the industry can come under scrutiny.

https://oilandgasworkers.org has been set up by Scot.E3 – campaigners for climate jobs and a “just transition”.  The offshore workforce is invited to come together in conversation about the enormous changes facing their industry, their lives and the future of their families and communities.

The website and conversation follows up on the ground breaking work of oil watchdog “Platform”. Their recently published report “Offshore” surveyed the views of 1383 North Sea workers on industry conditions and the energy transition. The report gained wide publicity in the media last month and marks the first time the voices of oil & gas workers have been heard in this period of intense crisis in the industry.

Contact: oilandgasworkers.org@gmail.com

Screenshot from http://www.oilandgasworkers.org

Closing Down Big Oil

Closing Down Big Oil was our contribution to the Edinburgh World Justice Festival 2020. At the event on 9th October there were contributions from Andy Georghiou, Brian Parkin and Neil Rothnie. In this post we’ve collated video, audio, Powerpoint slides and links which give a flavour of the discussion.

Andy talked about the local and global role of INEOS and the importance of petrochemicals in the debate on just transition.

Brian gave an overview of the rise of big oil, its dominance in the twentieth century and the necessity for its demise in the twenty first.

Neil brought the discussion back to the importance of the North Sea for the campaign for a just transition to a sustainable economy here in Scotland

Here are Andy’s slides as a Power Point presentation

In this audio file Neil addresses a question about the role of XR

And in this audio file Andy addresses a question on greenwashing and reflects on the overall discussion

Further reading:

September 2020 Oil and Gas Workers report – a review and links to the full report are on this blog – click here

The Sea Change report on North Sea transition and implications for employment

Some background to the Scottish National Investment Bank is here, while some questions and criticisms of how it is likely to be run can be found here and a recent article by George Kerevan is here.

Action on Mossmorran

The last few days have seen a recurrence of flaring at the Mossmorran gas plant in Fife. Fumes have drifted across the Forth forcing residents in North Edinburgh to close windows. More than 700 complaints have been submitted to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. Join the campaign calling for the stricter enforcement and protection for those living in the neighbourhood of the plant. In our view a plan for phased closure of the plant is needed as part of a just green transition. We republish here the video we held with speakers from the Mossmorran Action Group earlier this year.

North Sea workers ready to switch to renewables, survey shows

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, Offshore: oil and gas workers’ views on industry conditions and the energy transition, was put together by Platform LondonFriends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace.

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.

Let’s go! Wind turbines, with an electricity sub-station, in the North Sea (German sector). Photo: SteKrueBe / Creative Commons

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%

Renewables 51%

Rig decommissioning 38%

Carbon capture and storage 26%

Non-energy sector 20%

Solar installation 19%

Geothermal technologies 18%

Battery technologies 16%

Transport 15%

Electrical engineering 13%

Other 2%.

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.

Edinburgh May Day, 2019. Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland / Oil, coal and resistance

The oil companies present this climate-wrecking policy in “green” wrapping paper, Vision 2035 – which cynically claims to aim at “net zero” emissions, while continuing to pump a million barrels a day.

But the underlying strategy of “maximising economic recovery”, i.e. wringing out every last drop, is unchanged.

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’.

Survey

Platform and Friends of the Earth Scotland are carrying out a survey to gather information on the effect of the oil crisis and COVID-19 on job security and work conditions and to understand how the campaign for a ‘Just Transition’ is perceived by oil and gas workers and what kinds of demands workers would like to see addressed by a transition to net-zero. 

The survey is directed at people employed in

  • The oil and gas industry
  • The supply chain (such as aviation, transport, car manufacturing and service industries)
  • Public bodies, unions or community organisations who regularly interact with the oil and gas industry and supply chain

If you fall in to one of these categories do take the time to complete the survey.

Scotland, Norway, Climate Jobs and Covid 19

The economies of Norway and Scotland have both been shaped by 50 years of exploitation of North Sea oil and gas. Both countries have governments that talk about tackling the climate crisis while remaining wedded to the further extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea basin.  There is however, a sharp divide between the two countries.  After 50 years Norway has the biggest Sovereign wealth fund in the world.  Scotland in contrast has no such fund and UK governments since the 70’s have pursued taxation policies that have resulted in massive net subsidies to the oil industry.  Right now job losses are taking place in the Scottish sector as companies respond to the overproduction of oil and the drop in price – in the worst-case scenario this could mean (including the multiplier effect) up to a quarter of a million jobs lost in Scotland out of a total workforce of 2.6m.

On the 24th May we were fortunate to hear from Andreas Ytterstad who is part of the Norwegian Climate Jobs Campaign – Bridge to the Future.  You can watch a video of Andreas’ introduction below.  This was followed by a very lively discussion in the course of which participants shared questions, ideas and links to resources.  It’s hard to do justice to such a rich discussion but in the rest of this post we have sketched a summary of the issues raised and included links to further reading and useful resources. 

Summary of the discussion

Andreas and others argued that state intervention and public control is essential for just transition. The door we’ve been pushing against is now slightly open – for example the growing scepticism in the Finance Department of even the right-wing Norwegian Government about further investment in oil extraction. All governments are now under huge financial pressure from increased expenditure and reduced receipts in the Covid-19 pandemic. This is an entirely new situation – we can push for things we couldn’t realistically push for before. Oil companies have no interest in funding transition, especially as they are led by men coming to the end of their working lives, not up for taking risks.

There was a lot of discussion about Climate Jobs, what they are and their relative importance in the overall economy.  Speakers noted the importance of studies by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign and the Green European Foundation in establishing a rigorous case for climate jobs.  Andreas noted that even if the current target number is too small it could act as the battering ram to break through to State acceptance of Climate Jobs and Just Transition.  He argued the need to win acceptance of the idea but that by itself it was insufficient.  The campaign also requires the agency of workers as active participants to ensure that ideas become implemented. Offshore workers’ skills will be important in new housing, energy efficiency retrofit of buildings and public transport. We are going to need huge numbers of Climate Jobs across all sectors, not just the energy sector. An aerospace worker added that there is also huge need for Climate Jobs arising from redundancies in the Aerospace industry.

Andreas noted that regional variation is important in planning and achieving Just transition. It will be most difficult in communities, which have grown and are now entirely dependent on oil.  Aberdeen is similar to Norwegian examples, but less remote and therefore more easily incorporated into a national plan. In the meantime we should support even defensive actions by these communities. One speaker noted that in England, Sheffield and County Durham for example, are both developing their own Climate Jobs / Just Transition plans. In both Norway and Scotland (and England) there’s potential for local and regional state authorities to join the Climate Jobs movement.  There were questions and contributions on the role of local authorities from contributors in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Other questions raised in discussion included:

How to fund the transition? Without a national investment bank how can manufacturing of renewables and other socially useful products for climate jobs be financed?

What are these green jobs?

Who will create them?

Who will fund these new jobs/businesses?

What is the response from Norwegian oil workers to transition jobs?

Will the jobs be from the private sector, or subsidised by national/regional governments, or state/regional publicly owned and financed?  Responses to this included ‘That’s fundamental  – I think the devil is not just in the detail of when or how much but also who will own it!  In Aberdeen the oil and local political establishment have ignored and then when they had to, slowly started to talk about transition but mainly to manage it and make sure they were still in control of transition!  What about pushing for transition without them in control?  Where all could the money be taken from.’

What does anyone think of case of Uruguay?  

More links and further reading

Andreas Ytterstad writing on climate jobs for the Open Democracy website

Scottish Government Energy Strategy

Aberdeen City Council consultation and net zero vision

Sea Change Report – the case for transition from North Sea Oil and Gas

In Scotland the Common Weal “Our Common Home Plan” outlines a way in which a six of passive measures to REDUCE energy requirements in buildings AND improve well-being. 

Call to Action

Read the call to action on global climate jobs

Covid19 and Oil Extractivism

In recent weeks we’ve published a number of articles on the impact of the drop in global oil prices on employment in North Sea oil and gas and on the urgent need to protect workers in the midst of the pandemic and seize the opportunity to organise for a rapid and just transition to renewables. Simon Pirani, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies spoke at our 10th May public meeting.

You can watch the video of Simon’s talk here:

As background to the talk and for more information on the North Sea Oil and Gas industry you might also like to read the report on taxation and subsidies to the oil companies operating on the North Sea that we published in February.

If you’d like to look at Simon’s slides without watching the full video you can see them here:

We have a small number of Simon’s book available at the reduced price of £11 (postage extra). Email triple.e.scot@gmail.com if you’d like a copy.

A transition to renewables is coming but will it be a just transition

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.

Read the rest of James’ article here.