North Sea workers ready to switch to renewables

| 5th October 2020 |
Edinburgh May Day
People & Nature
More than half of UK oil workers would switch to work on renewable energy if given the opportunity to retrain, new survey shows.

This 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.

Workers are ready to move away from fossil fuel production as long as they can work and their families don’t suffer, a new survey has found.

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. 

The 1,383 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.

Workers

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.

Many respondents complained about precarious employment and the contract labour now rife on the North Sea. 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 1,546 responses. The results excluded replies by 163 people who work in midstream or downstream industries, and are focused on the 1,383 respondents who work upstream. That’s a representative sample: about 4.5 percent of the workforce.

Transition 

One of the survey’s most sobering results is that, when asked if they had heard of a “just transition”, a staggering 91 percent 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 percent said yes, seven percent said no and 10 percent 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"

Precarious

Of the seven percent 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 percent; (2) pay, 21 percent; (3) similar work schedule, 11 percent; (4) health and safety regulations, 5 percent.

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 percent; Renewables 51 percent; Rig decommissioning 38 percent; Carbon capture and storage 26 percent; Non-energy sector 20 percent; Solar installation 19 percent; Geothermal technologies 18 percent; Battery technologies 16 percent; Transport 15 percent; Electrical engineering 13 percent; and Other two percent. 

Training 

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.

"This 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.

Economics

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.

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).

Insecurity 

When the oil price slump triggered a new wave of lay-offs in April, 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. 

One respondent to the survey wrote: "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."

Ideas

Another wrote: "I’ve gone to agencies who employ contractors as staff, and have had to go back as an independent contractor and take a 25 percent 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, one worker said: "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."

On the energy transition, another worker observed: "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’."

This Author

Gabriel Levy is a writer with an interest in socialism, ecology and the former Soviet countries, who blogs at People and Nature, where this article was first published. He has been active in the labour movement all his life.

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