1. Leafletting workplaces We want to use our general briefing on COP 26 to get back to proactive workplace leafletting. If you’d like hard copies of the briefing, you can download and print yourself or just email and say how many you need, and we can put them in the post. Use them in your workplace. Or if you’d like to help by leafletting outside a workplace near you, we can put you in touch with others local to you if you need help and we can provide posters with QR codes that some people going in to work may prefer to use rather than taking a physical copy.
Speaking on behalf of the UK Government last week Alok Sharma said that the world is “dangerously close” to running out of time to stop a climate catastrophe. Sharma would have already seen the now published IPCC report which makes it abundantly clear that this is the case. Politicians use ‘we’ and ‘the world’ as if lack of action is a responsibility that we all share equally. He went on to state that “We can’t afford to wait two years, five years, 10 years – this is the moment …” But in March 2021 the UK government signed up to a North Sea Transition Deal, designed by the oil and gas sector that essentially puts off the action we need for another three decades. Opening a new oilfield is part of the plan and despite his rhetoric Sharma is right behind it. This is why the campaign to stop the Cambo field is so important. Pete Cannell explores the political importance of the campaign in this post. A version of the post was published previously on the rs21 website.
On Monday 19th July twelve climate activists blocked the entrance to the UK Government hub in Edinburgh, demanding that plans to give the green light for a new oilfield west of Shetland be scrapped. Later in the day they were joined by another 200 ‘Stop Cambo’ protestors.
Shell and Siccar Point Energy are asking the UK Government for permission to develop the Cambo oil field. Production is scheduled to start in 2025 and in phase 1 the two companies expect to extract 150 million barrels of oil – the emissions equivalent of 16 coal-fired power plants running for a year. In total the new field contains the equivalent 800 million barrels of oil.
With the United Nations Climate talks, COP 26, due to start in just over 3 months’ time the Stop Cambo campaign is shining a harsh light on what passes for UK climate policy. Throughout the year Westminster has been ramping up announcements on ‘Net Zero’ climate initiatives. We’ll see many more in the run up to the COP. You might think that developing a new, deep water, oil field would fit uncomfortably with all of this. And indeed, some critics are calling out Boris Johnson for hypocrisy. But the truth is that giving the green light for a new oil field is no aberration or hypocritical deviation from otherwise well-intentioned policies. On the contrary it’s a core part of UK and Scottish government policy that aims at maximum economic extraction of hydrocarbons from the North Sea. And as such it provides a critical lens through which all this year’s announcements should be viewed.
The blueprint behind Tory plans is not hard to find. It was released earlier this year without a fanfare. On the 21st of March, Oil and Gas UK published the North Sea Transition Deal, a plan for continuing exploitation of North Sea Oil and Gas to 2050 and beyond. The deal is a tripartite arrangement between the big oil and gas companies and the UK and Scottish governments. It maps out a plan to continue extracting oil and gas from the North Sea. The idea is that at some point in the future carbon capture and carbon offsetting will allow the government to claim that they have achieved Net Zero. In this world Net Zero doesn’t mean the end of oil and gas production. The theory is that the carbon contained in the oil and gas extracted from the North Sea is either trapped in underground storage or compensated for by carbon retention measures elsewhere.
The whole concept of Net Zero as developed in the Transition Deal is deeply flawed. For a start, UK and Scottish emissions reduction targets don’t include the carbon extracted from the North Sea. These greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to users of the products that derive from the oil and gas. So, Oil and Gas UK can talk blithely about a zero carbon North Sea oil sector because it takes no responsibility for end use. But even if you accept the bizarre logic of extracting hydrocarbons while taking no responsibility for a large part of the emissions you produce, the core technology that underpins carbon capture is speculative and untested. Currently, there is nowhere in the world where carbon capture and storage operate at large scale. And even if it can be made to work at large scale there will be many more years of greenhouse gas emissions before it has a serious impact.
Alongside continuing use of fossil fuels and carbon capture the North Sea Transition Deal also reserves a key role for hydrogen in transport and in domestic heating. Some of the hydrogen will be ‘blue’ produced from hydrocarbons, some ‘green’ the result of electrolysis of water. Without carbon capture ‘blue’ hydrogen is a major source of carbon emissions. ‘Green’ hydrogen, produced using electricity generated from renewables, is carbon free but immensely inefficient, requiring a huge ramping up of electricity production from wind, tidal and solar power. There’s certainly a place for green hydrogen in a renewable energy mix but only where direct use of electricity is impractical. From any other perspective except that of an oil and gas company direct use of renewably generated electricity makes obvious sense.
The Sea Change report, published in May 2019, shows how continuing production of North Sea oil and gas is incompatible with meeting the UK’s climate targets, let alone meeting the UK’s historical responsibility to the global south as one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases over the last two centuries. The report also shows how a planned, and rapid, shut down of North Sea operations could maximise employment opportunities in renewable energy.
It was striking that all the speakers at the Stop Cambo rally highlighted the need for workers to be at the centre of the transition away from oil and gas. Just Transition has become the common sense of climate activists in Scotland. And climate is finally on the agenda of the trade union movement. At the Scottish Trades Union Congress in April three of the composited motions focused on the issue. But there is a real challenge here. The STUC motions proposed by Unite, GMB, Prospect and the RMT tail the business-as-usual agenda that is driven by Oil and Gas UK and supported by Westminster and Holyrood – support for continuing extraction of oil and gas, carbon capture and a hydrogen economy. There’s a need for a sharp debate. The politics and practice of transition can’t be ducked by either climate activists or workers.
Even if the untested technologies on which Oil and Gas UK’s strategy is based work, Net Zero will not mean no net emissions, but simply shift responsibility for emissions elsewhere, often to the global south. And business-as-usual also means a continuing drive for profit maximisation, low wages, and precarious employment. Just Transition is not possible on the back of the North Sea Transition deal.
For Just Transition to become more than a slogan, we need to win workers to the need for mass working class action over climate. At this moment in our history class and climate are deeply intermeshed. Fighting for a future for our children and grandchildren with a transition strategy that provides a real chance of avoiding a climate catastrophe goes hand in hand with winning decent jobs and conditions, fighting racism and gender oppression and building workers’ power. The need is obvious, but the politics of how to make it happen is critical and requires a break with the union/employer partnership approach which underlies existing trade union policy.
Cambo is just one more piece in the jigsaw of the fossil fuel economy that needs to be dismantled. However, the decision to go ahead or not is politically important. Boris Johnson wants to milk the UK’s hosting of COP26 for all its worth. It will be embarrassing if developing new oil and gas fields is foregrounded in news from the COP, and that may mean a decision is postponed until 2022. Not because the UK is out of line with the other industrialised nations participating in the COP. Relying on carbon capture and other techno fixes is in line with the thinking that has informed the COP process over the years. A public outcry over Cambo in the run up to COP26 can help blow away the mist of greenwashing that will be generated around the Glasgow talks and help to push the climate and union movements in the direction of a radical worker led strategy for system change not climate change.
Both the UK and Scottish governments remain committed to continuing extraction of North Sea Oil and Gas. Carbon emission from the burning of these fuels are more than five times those of the whole Scottish economy. Yet these emissions are not included in Scottish or UK targets for emissions reduction. The assumption is that other countries will cut usage and the market will then drive down demand or, and more often, that we can carry on producing willy nilly but consumers will find ways of capturing the carbon. Both of these events are deferred into the future and exploration and development of new fields continues. The Sea Change report shows how these plans are incompatible with a zero carbon economy and with a just transition.
Thanks to Friends of the Earth Scotland for these notes on the latest development west of Shetland.
Oil giant Shell and Siccar Point Energy are seeking permission from the UK Government to develop the Cambo oil field, West of Shetland, just months ahead of COP26. In the first phase, due to start in 2025, the companies expect to extract 150 million barrels of oil – the emissions equivalent of 16 coal-fired power plants running for a year. They anticipate operating the Cambo field, which contains 800 million boe, until 2050, by which time Britain has pledged to be net carbon neutral.
The Cambo Field is the second largest oil and gas development waiting for approval and once up and running is set to be the fifth largest producer in the North Sea. If approved, Cambo Field will be the first UK project to get the green light since the International Energy Agency Net Zero report calling for no new investment in oil and gas starting this year and the Shell ruling mandating the company to slash carbon emissions 45% by 2030.
The UK Government is currently expected to give its final approval on the project over the next six to eight weeks. Moving forward with the Cambo Field contradicts the findings of the IEA’s net zero report and is incompatible with limiting warming to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5C.
The climate impacts of opening the Cambo Oil field would be devastating. In the first phase alone, developers want to extract 150million barrels of oil; the emissions from which are equivalent to running a coal-fired power station for 16 years. The field is expected to operate until 2050 – the point by which your government has committed to reaching net zero emissions. And this is just the beginning. Cambo Field is only one of many oil and gas projects waiting for government approval that have the potential to extract 1.7 billions barrels of oil.
Approving the Cambo field will be a massive failure of UK climate leadership and threatens to undermine the success of the crucial UN climate talks. In just a few months, the eyes of the world will turn to the UK as the hosts of the UN climate talks in Glasgow. Approving the Cambo field will send a clear message that this government is not serious about climate action and not willing to do its part to phase out support for oil and gas. If the UK keeps extracting oil and gas, how can it expect other countries to do anything different?
The International Energy Agency has stated that to meet the 1.5°C target in the Paris Agreement, there should be no more new investment in oil, gas, or coal. Further, the recent UK Climate Change Committee assessment clearly laid out that current UK policies are far from delivering the UK’s climate goals. The amount of oil and gas in already operating fields in the UK will exceed our share of emissions in relation to the Paris climate goals. The world cannot afford to open new fossil fuel frontiers. This starts with rejecting the Cambo Field.
If Boris Johnson is serious about being a climate leader, he must reject Cambo, all new fossil fuel developments and support a just transition for oil and gas workers and impacted communities. It’s time to end the UK government’s support for maximising the economic recovery of oil & gas and commit instead to a rapid and fair energy transition. With the right policy support, the UK could create three jobs in clean energy for every oil & gas job at risk. We need a clear, credible plan to wind down production and deliver a just transition that is driven by oil and gas workers, their unions and affected communities.
The Cambo Field will bring few jobs, little tax and a potentially huge clean up bill for the public purse. Contracts for construction and installation have been awarded to overseas firms, meaning the bulk of jobs will be outside of the UK. As part of a global oil market 80% of UK crude is currently exported, and so this field would not contribute significantly to UK energy security. Siccar Point Energy, who owns the majority stake in the proposed field, paid no net tax between 2015 and 2019, instead receiving £41mn from the government to cover decommissioning costs. Meanwhile, the complexity of the field and high cost of operating in the West of Shetland makes the project high risk, with similar projects suffering from large cost overruns that have driven producers to bankruptcy.