We can’t trust energy workers’ futures to Big Oil

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Press & Journal on Saturday 6 August 2016.

The port at Nigg, where work on the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm is creating 100 green jobs. Photo: Sea Cromarty Sparkle by Rhonda Surman. CC-BY-2.0.
The port at Nigg, where work on the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm is creating 100 green jobs.
Photo: Sea Cromarty Sparkle by Rhonda Surman. CC-BY-2.0.
I want to start this column by offering my support and solidarity to the 400 workers at the multination oil services company Wood Group, who are continuing with the first offshore strike in almost three decades.

These workers already do a tough and sometimes risky job, have already been moved to a three-week working pattern meaning longer periods offshore away from their families, and are now being asked to accept pay cuts.

While workers’ pay is cut, the Chief Executive of the Wood Group has been given a 28% pay rise, taking his salary to £600,000 a year, and the company is handing out a generous 10% dividend to its shareholders.

This attitude exemplifies an economy that treats workers in the same way as it treats the oil and gas they drill – as a commodity to be exploited until it is no longer profitable; never mind the harm caused or the damage left behind when corporations move on to juicier profits elsewhere.

So it’s small wonder that the disregard shown for these workers’ immediate future is matched by the disinterest most oil and gas firms show in securing them a long-term working future. When the oil is done, Big Oil reasons, they will simply up sticks and never look back on the unemployment they’d leave behind.

It’s a story all too familiar to the former steel towns of the Central Belt, and it could well be played out again in the North if we go on without a plan for what comes next.

The good news is that what comes next could be an energy revolution to outshine the fossil fuel age; creating more than enough jobs to secure the future of our world-class skilled workforce and renewing the economy not only of Aberdeen, but also of town and country right across the North and the Islands.

Scotland has a quarter of the European Union’s entire offshore wind and marine energy potential, and perhaps the greatest offshore engineering tradition in the world.

As well as Aberdeen’s undisputed position as a global centre for offshore engineering, we have innovative and expert workforces in communities across the country, such as at Nigg, Orkney, Shetland and Campbeltown. Not to mention the huge injection of skills, facilities and money that could be brought to bear if Faslane was converted for socially useful, peaceful work.

By applying our unique skills to our vast renewable resources, we could put Scotland at the forefront of a global industry. We should be not only Europe’s biggest producer of clean energy, but also the place the world comes for renewable technology, engineering and services.

Workers in the oil and gas industry know that it cannot last forever, and that it may not even last until the end of their careers. They know that they may be the last generation of Scottish oil and gas workers, and wonder what the future holds for their children and their communities. Meanwhile, multinational oil firms attempt to exploit this vulnerability, gouging workers who they believe have no alternative.

Cover of the Green MSPs' report Jobs in Scotland's New Economy.
The Green MSPs’ report Jobs in Scotland’s Green Economy (PDF) shows how we could create more than 200,000 green jobs in the next 20 years.
Energy workers deserve so much better than that. They deserve a secure future for themselves and their families. They deserve to be valued for their skills, not squeezed to prop up bonuses and dividends when the declining oil age fail to satisfy corporate greed. They have the ability to build a new energy industry that will underpin Scottish prosperity for generations to come and help save the world into the bargain, and they deserve the chance to fulfil that potential.

The first glimmers of that industry are plain to see. Renewables now supply more than half of Scotland’s electricity demand, and just this week Vattenfall announced a £300m investment to build the 11-turbine, 92.4MW European Offshore Wind Development Centre in Aberdeen Bay.

But without a concerted, ambitious plan to transition from the fossil era to the clean energy age we could easily fall short of our potential. Currently-planned projects aren’t yet enough to hit the Scottish Government target of meeting 100% of our electricity needs from renewables by 2020, and the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee warned this week that uncertainty over the UK Government’s commitment to renewables could threaten future growth.

And a piecemeal, wait-and-see strategy does nothing to guarantee the futures of present oil and gas workers: they need to know where and when their future jobs are coming, and they need a guarantee of extra training or financial help if they need them.

So I encourage the Scottish Government to work with unions, employers, universities and colleges, industry bodies and all willing political parties – certainly the Greens are ready to help – to create a comprehensive and genuinely ambitious industrial strategy that maps a detailed route from the fossil-fuel economy of the 20th century to the renewable boom of the 21st century and beyond.

There’s no question that clean energy is our future; the choice we have to make now is whether we lead the world into that bright future, or merely follow it.