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.

Multi-million pound windfarm deal for Nigg Energy Park

Cover of the Green MSPs' report Jobs in Scotland's New Economy.
Click to download the Green MSPs’ report Jobs in Scotland’s Green Economy (PDF).
John Finnie has congratulated Nigg Energy Park on securing a multi-million pound contract of works on the new Beatrice Offshore Windfarm.

The deal between Global Energy Group, which runs the Nigg facility, and engineering giant Siemens is expected to secure around 100 jobs, with work due to begin in spring 2018.

The Beatrice windfarm, to be constructed off the coast of Caithness between 2017 and 2019, will almost quadruple Scotland’s offshore wind energy capacity.

John said the deal showed the potential of the green-collar economy in the Highlands, but argued far more could be done to take full advantage of our opportunities:

“I’m so pleased for Nigg! This contract will secure around 100 green jobs and demonstrates the port’s potential as a major renewable energy centre.

“With bold national action, these 100 jobs could be just a drop in the ocean. The Green MSPs’ report Jobs in Scotland’s New Economy showed how Scotland could create over 200,000 green-collar jobs in the next 20 years.

“Today’s success for Nigg is a glimpse of how our green energy potential can create the high-quality jobs that will underpin a fair economy and a fair society. To make that a reality, we need a decisive government plan make the most of our natural advantages and our engineering skill, securing workers’ livelihoods as we lead the way from oil and gas to the energy sources of the future.”

Green jobs plan promises renaissance for Highlands and Islands

Cover of the Green MSPs' report <em>Jobs in Scotland's New Economy</em>.
Click to download the Green MSPs’ report Jobs in Scotland’s Green Economy (PDF).
John Finnie has warmly welcomed research from the Scottish Green MSPs which shows how the Highlands and Islands could share in 200,000 new green jobs in strengths such as renewable energy, oil and gas decommissioning, home insulation and forestry. John said the Green proposals would mean a “renaissance” for the economy of the Highlands and Islands.

The report, Jobs in Scotland’s New Economy, calls on government to capitalise on Scotland’s engineering skills and natural resources to put the country at the forefront of the new industries that will replace oil and gas. It was published this week by the Green MSPs Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone.

John said:

“The energy industry is key to the Highlands and Islands, from our oil and gas expertise in Orkney or Nigg, to our pioneering of wind power and marine renewables.

“We all know oil and gas won’t last for ever, and we owe it to the workers in that industry to have a plan that uses their skills to build the energy economy of the future. We owe it to our young people’s future to generate jobs in industries like forestry and home insulation that can’t be shipped away to a head office central belt or London. I’m very grateful to the Green MSPs for this research that shows just how exciting that future could be for the Highlands and Islands.”

Offshore renewables in the Islands and West Highlands

“Scotland has perhaps the greatest engineering tradition in the world, and one quarter of the European Union’s entire offshore wind and marine energy potential, most of which lies off the shores of Shetland, the Western Isles and the West Highlands, and most of which goes unused. Relying on multinational businesses has brought us delays to the interconnectors the islands, underdevelopment of renewables and the pointless push to drill oil we won’t be able to burn. The Greens’ report proposes bypassing corporate inertia by setting up a publicly-owned renewables company to drive forward offshore wind, tidal and wave energy developments, with the profits coming back to the people.”


“Much of the Highlands remains scoured clean of its natural woodland. Only 17% of our land is forest, compared to an EU average of 37%. The report proposes increasing our forest land by half, creating around 17,000 jobs in timber, tourism, recreation, and harvesting the biomass that would supply a renovated and publicly-owned Grangemouth for the production of biofuels and bioplastics.”

Insulating homes

“The Green MSP Alison Johnstone has already persuaded the Scottish Government to make insulating homes a national infrastructure priority. That’s especially important in the Highlands and Islands, where we have above-average fuel poverty and below-average housing stock. By creating jobs, cutting bills, and reducing ill-health, making all our homes energy efficient would be one of the most effective investments the Scottish Government could make.”

Oil and gas decommissioning at Nigg

“With 470 North Sea platforms and 10,000km of pipeline coming to the end of their lives in the next 30 years, we have an opportunity to become a world leader in decommissioning. We would create thousands of jobs in decommissioning our own fields, before exporting those services to other oil and gas fields around the world. Fabrication yards like the one at Nigg would have a new lease of life, potentially employing many more skilled workers than at present. But when the massive Brent Delta platform is decommissioned this year, the work will go to Teeside – we need decisive action if Scotland is to take the lead.”

Putting Orkney at the centre of the marine economy

“Orkney is poised to become an international centre for the marine economy, with a fantastic location and its legendary natural harbour in Scapa Flow. It’s already home to the European Marine Energy Centre, and the investment proposed by the Greens’ plan would expand that to a high-tech marine campus with hundreds of jobs in research, fabrication and maintenance. However, no new industry thrives without government support, and the bailout of Grangemouth contrasted with the collapse of EMEC-based Pelamis shows we still haven’t quite got our priorities straight.”

Seize the opportunity

“The Highlands and Islands’ colossal green energy potential can create the high-quality jobs that will underpin a fair economy and a fair society, but none of this will happen by accident. We need decisive government action, while we can still reap the benefits of being first into the race, to make sure that these enormous opportunities don’t pass us by.”

The report makes a wide range of policy recommendations, including:

  • Creating a publicly-owned renewables company to encourage offshore wind, tidal and wave developments
  • Prioritising North Sea decommissioning work
  • Taking the Grangemouth refinery and petrochemicals plant into public ownership
  • Converting Grangemouth to make and use synthetic gas to enable a long-term future
  • Launching a national insulation retrofit programme
  • Launching a large-scale reforesting programme
  • Making available support packages for fossil fuel workers to aid their transition to new sectors

Congratulations to Daviot Primary’s prizewinning young engineers

Daviot Primary School logoFour young engineers from the 11-pupil Daviot Primary School near Inverness have beaten 200 other schools to win the 2015 Junior Saltire Prize by designing and building a floating device to harvest energy from the waves.

Team Daviot have form in the competition, as they also took home second place in last year’s Junior Saltire.

The Highlanders claimed the 2015 medal with a device consisting of a plastic box weighed down with lead and containing a pendulum that is swung by the motion of the waves, powering a dynamo to generate electricity.

John Finnie has lodged a motion at the Scottish Parliament to recognise the Daviot team’s achievement:

Motion S4M-13408:John Finnie, Highlands and Islands, Independent

Daviot Primary School Success at 2015 Junior Saltire Award

That the Parliament congratulates the pupils of Daviot Primary School on their success in the 2015 Junior Saltire Award; understands that the primary 6 and 7 pupils from the 11-pupil school won the award for designing their own floating wave energy device, which was tested by the University of Edinburgh’s FloWave Ocean Energy Research Facility; notes that the school came second in the 2014 Junior Saltire Award, and believes that, for a small rural school, reaching the final twice in two years is a huge testament to the work of the staff and the pupils.

John said:

“For any school, reaching the final of a tough competition like the Junior Saltire twice in a row would be a huge achievement. It’s even more impressive for a small rural school. I hope the pupils and staff are thoroughly proud of themselves – I know I’m proud of them!

“Scotland boasts half of the European Union’s entire marine energy potential, so our sea is the key to the clean energy and skilled jobs of the future. With Scotland producing brilliant young engineers like the pupils of Daviot, it looks like our energy future will be in safe hands.”

The Junior Saltire Prize is the young people’s version of the Saltire Prize, a £10million Scottish Government competition to accelerate the development of wave and tidal energy technology.

John joins Edinburgh students’ climate protest

"Occupied until Divestment" placard at Charles Stewart House, Edinburgh University
Photo: Edinburgh People and Planet
John has praised student climate activists who have occupied an Edinburgh University finance office over the University’s decision to continue investing in the coal and tar sands industries.

At the invitation of Edinburgh’s People and Planet group, John will be visiting the occupation and speaking to the campaigners this afternoon.

Edinburgh University’s top governing body, the University Court, voted unanimously last Tuesday (12 May) to reject calls to divest from the dirtiest fossil fuels. Over 30 students occupied Charles Stewart House, which houses the University’s finance department, the following day.

In October last year, Glasgow University became the first in Europe to divest from fossil fuels, withdrawing £18m of investments from the industry, after a student campaign that was also led by People and Planet activists.

John has been campaigning for divestment and ethical investment practices, including calling for investments in fossil fuels, weapons and tobacco to be dropped from the Scottish Parliamentary Pension Scheme. [2]

Ahead of his visit to the University, John said:

“There can hardly be a more nakedly selfish act than profiting off of the human suffering of climate change.

“I am disgusted by the University bosses’ decision to keep on bankrolling the big oil and coal corporations that are knowingly destroying the very futures of the students the University exists to serve.

“These are companies like Shell, which, it was revealed yesterday, is operating based on a strategy that allows global average temperature to rise by 4°C – twice the level considered the maximum safe increase by scientists. Companies which, despite their huge profits, take more money in subsidies than the world’s governments spend on healthcare.

“The idea that these companies can be made benign by ‘engagement’ is utterly, and probably wilfully, naïve. Institutions who claim to care at all about the world they are shaping with their money need to stop supplying harmful industries with capital and instead put that money into the alternatives, like renewable energy, that have massive potential but are crying out for investment.

“I am optimistic about our chances, not least because of the courageous actions of the students I’ve met here today. As long as there are principled people willing to fight for our future, we have a chance of human welfare ultimately winning out over corporate profit.

“The campaign to get Edinburgh University out of the oil business is far from over, and neither is the fight for a safe climate.”

Peter McColl, a former Rector of Edinburgh University, policy director of the Common Weal think tank, and Scottish Greens candidate for Edinburgh East in the recent General Election, is joining John at the occupation today. He said:

“The great issues of our day are the environmental and economic crises. I’m hugely proud of the students occupying Edinburgh University, who are taking a vital stand to solve these crises.

“Now is the time to divest from fossil fuels. At a time when investment in clean energy technology like wind and solar power is vital we must invest in these technologies rather than the dirty fuels of the past. We need to develop ways to store the energy generated through these technologies. That also requires serious investment, but promises huge rewards. It’s an area where Scotland – including our universities – can lead the world, and end climate change’s destruction of people’s lives.”

Keep Scotland frack-free

John Finnie with Friends of the Earth's Mr Frackhead.
John with Friends of the Earth’s Mr Frackhead.
If you haven’t heard of fracking yet, you will. Fracking – short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’ – is a process in which water and other chemicals are injected into shale rock or coal seams at very high pressure, causing the rock to fracture and, the frackers hope, release gas that can be burned as a fuel.

How exactly the rock will break, and where the chemicals released will go, is highly unpredictable. Fracking has been linked to localised earthquakes and dangerous pollution of the soil, water and air.

Even without using fracking, all drilling for shale gas and coalbed methane, particularly in densely-populated areas such as the central belt, raises grave concerns for public health. Most drilling involves introducing hazardous chemicals into the ground, and all drilling runs the risk of releasing dangerous chemicals that occur naturally in coal and shale.

Not only are these risks serious, they’re also unnecessary. Scotland already has access to far more oil and gas than we can safely burn if we hope to limit climate change – we don’t need to risk the health of our children in the search for more fossil fuels of ever-lower quality at ever-higher risk.

Scotland also has genuinely huge potential for renewable energy. With only 1% of the population of the European Union, we have 10% of the EU’s wave energy potential, and 25% of its tidal energy and offshore wind energy potential. If we direct our efforts into developing those resources instead, we can be a clean energy giant for generations to come.

We’re at a critical point for this national decision, so it’s been really encouraging that dozens of people have contacted me to express their opposition to unconventional gas.

The right to exploit oil and gas in the whole of the UK is controlled by the Westminster government. It’s them (through the Department for Energy and Climate Change) that issue licenses to drill. And it’s the Westminster parliament that is currently considering a new law that will allow fracking and other fossil fuel extraction under homes without the consent or even knowledge of the householder.

But there are things we can do in Scotland to fight back.

In the new Scottish Planning Policy, the Scottish Government have required that all applications for shale gas and coal bed methane extraction include a risk assessment, and that that should lead to buffer zones being included in the application. They’ve also required that should permission be granted for one type of drilling and the developer later wants to use hydraulic fracking at the site, they will need to apply for new planning permission.

This is a much more cautious attitude than the UK government, but the Scottish Government can and should do more. I have called on them to place a ban on unconventional fossil fuel extraction, supporting this motion by my colleague in the Independent/Green group at Holyrood, Alison Johnstone:

Motion S4M-09927: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scottish Green Party, Date Lodged: 02/05/2014
Energy and Climate Change

That the Parliament notes the significant public opposition to new methods of fossil fuel extraction such as fracking and coal-bed methane; notes that energy companies already hold far more fossil fuel reserves than it is safe to burn; agrees with the UK Energy and Climate Change Committee and many others, such as the chairman of Cuadrilla and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that developing unconventional gas in the UK will likely have no effect on the cost of energy for households; opposes the UK Government’s extensive tax breaks for the industry and what it sees as a bribe to local authorities to approve development; supports communities in Falkirk, Stirling, Dumfries and Galloway and across the central belt who are campaigning against unconventional gas, and calls on the Scottish Government to implement a ban on unconventional fossil fuel extraction in Scotland in order to protect communities, safeguard local environments and focus investment on renewable energy, given the importance of meeting all targets under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, the third of which is due to be reported to the Parliament imminently.

Supported by: John Finnie
Current Status: Taken in the Chamber on 07/05/2014

This motion was the subject of a debate in the Scottish Parliament on 7 May this year – you can read the Official Report of that debate here.

If you have time, I’d urge you to write to your MP to ask them to oppose the proposals in the Infrastructure Bill that will allow developers to drill under homes and other without getting permission from, or even notifying, the householder, and allow them to leave chemicals under your property.

But if this law does pass at Westminster, it is likely that there will need to be what is called a Legislative Consent Motion in the Scottish Parliament. This is a vote to allow Westminster legislation on a subject that is normally devolved to Holyrood – in this case property law and access rights – to take effect in Scotland. These votes are usually just formalities, but I will oppose any motion that would remove your right to object to fracking or drilling under your home or other property.

If you haven’t already, you can write to your MSPs asking them to make the same pledge through the Friends of the Earth Scotland site.

And finally, because planning permission applications go to the local authority in the first instance, councils are also vital decision-makers in the fight to stop fracking. Along with over 48,000 others, I’ve signed the petition to every Scottish council, asking them to refuse planning permission for fracking. If you have the time, maybe you could add your name too?