Oil rig grounding shows urgent need for an emergency tug in the Western Isles

The Anglian Prince docked at Ullapool in 2008. The tug served the Minch and beyond from its base in Stornoway until it was axed in 2012. Photo: Anglian Prince by Mike Dunn. CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Anglian Prince docked at Ullapool in 2008. The tug served the Minch and beyond from its base in Stornoway until it was axed in 2012.

Photo: Anglian Prince by Mike Dunn. CC BY-SA 2.0.

John has written to the UK’s new Transport Secretary to repeat his call for the return of an emergency tug to the Western Isles, a need highlighted by the grounding of the Transocean Winner oil rig on Lewis.

The tug Anglian Prince was based at Stornoway until it was axed as part of Westminster cuts in 2012, leaving the Orkney-based Herakles as the only Emergency Towing Vessel covering Scotland’s northern waters.

John said:

“I am grateful that there were no personnel on board the Transocean Winner when it ran aground, and that therefore no-one was hurt. I also want to send my thanks to the Stornoway Coastguard and other responders, who have handled this disaster in tough weather conditions and while also responding to multiple other distress calls.

“However, we cannot yet know what the environmental damage may be, and there can be no guarantee that the next incident will pass without injuries or worse.

“This incident, along with the many others in recent years, demonstrates the urgent need for an emergency tug based in the Western Isles.

“The major inquiry held after the 1993 Braer disaster recommended as a priority that northwestern Scotland be provided with a strong emergency tug, and our seas have only got busier in the intervening three decades.

“Despite this, Westminster cuts abolished the Western Isles tug in 2012, leaving only the Orkney-based Herakles, which could take many hours to reach a vessel in distress in the Minch.

“We are a maritime nation and as such it is government’s responsibility to ensure that our seas and our coast are adequately protected. I’m repeating my call to the UK Government: reinstate the Western Isles tug, before Scotland has to pay the price.

“In the longer term, it’s clear that Scotland itself has to take responsibility for safety in Scottish waters. Our seas are being poorly served by a Westminster government for whom the far north of Scotland might as well be the far end of the world.”

Click here to read John’s letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling MP (PDF).

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.

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.”

Reforestation

“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