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UK: Oil and gas workers demand clean energy jobs

March 7, 2023

As Big Oil register record profits, underpaid workers in the North Sea want a "just" transition to renewable energy jobs where profits are to be reinvested in communities — not shareholders.

Oil rigs anchored in the Cromarty Firth on October 22, 2021, in Cromarty, Scotland
Workers are looking to jump ship from oil rigs to wind farmsImage: Ewan Bootman/NurPhoto/picture alliance

"The whole country is angry at the oil and gas companies," said Mark, a Newcastle-based offshore oil and gas worker for 20 years.

"They're taking money off the public. If BP made $9.3 billion (€8.7 billion) in profit last quarter, surely they're able to give something back," he added.

Mark said he "felt like crying" when he realized that one colleague couldn't afford heating over the winter — "someone who has worked their whole life in the industry."

Meanwhile, BP, a pioneer in North Sea oil and gas extraction since the 1960s, announced a record 2022 annual profit in February of near $30 billion on the back of the energy crisis sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The company said it was upping its shareholder dividends and cutting back emission reduction targets. 

Mark is part of a coalition of North Sea-based offshore oil and gas workers, climate campaigners and trade unions who this week launched a campaign to demand a "just" transition from fossil fuel production to renewable energy.

The plan calls for greater public investment in a clean energy sector that fairly shares the spoils with workers and communities while protecting the climate.

The plan is articulated through the report "Our Power: Offshore Workers' Demands for a Just Energy Transition," published Monday and authored by the London-based climate activism and research group Platform, and Friends of the Earth Scotland.

Created through workshops with 34 workers, the plan calls for rapid decarbonization and greater public control of the energy sector. Of over 1000 surveyed oil and gas workers, more than 90% support the "transformative" demands created by colleagues that make job security and fair pay essential to the clean energy transition.

A mosaic of wind turbines fill the ocean
North Sea wind farms are set to employ oil and gas workers seeking a just transition Image: James Arthur Gekiere/BELGA/picture alliance

No plan to manage fossil fuel phaseout

To limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 F) above preindustrial levels, the target set by the Paris climate agreement, wealthy nations such as the United Kingdom should phase out oil and gas production by 2031, according to the report.

Yet the United Kingdom has not created a plan for the managed phaseout of oil and gas production in the North Sea, with the oil industry able to determine the speed and strategy of any transition,

"In the face of political refusal to plan a transition, workers are ready to lead," the report states.

"Our Power" also details how 73% of oil and gas companies invest nothing in renewable energy production in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, recent research shows the large disparity between the sector's promises to act on climate change and nominal efforts to actually cut planet-heating emissions.

"No part of society will be safe from the impacts of climate breakdown, though the brunt of impacts will be felt by the poorest," the report notes.

The logo of the multinational oil and gas company BP, with a large tree in the foreground
Big Oil has failed to share profits with workers and reinvest in renewables Image: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

'Labor and climate movement coming together'

"One of the most exciting things about 'Our Power' is that it's the labor and climate movement coming together to say the same thing," said Gabrielle Jeliazkov, a just-transition campaigner with Platform and the report's co-author. "And that is relatively rare," she added, "because they are often pitted against each other."

The just transition is as much a socioeconomic issue as it is a climate issue, she said, with workers the victims of a fossil fuel "boom and bust" cycle in which some have been made redundant several times. 

This has especially impacted communities such as the northern Scottish city of Aberdeen, where one-third of all jobs are related to the oil and gas industry, Jeliazkov said.    

A worker-led just transition would institute a permanent "excess profits" tax on energy companies in the United Kingdom, with the money to be reinvested in communities through a sovereign wealth fund.

Though Norway's sovereign wealth fund totals $1.2 trillion, drawn from taxes on the oil and gas extracted in national waters, and is redistributed to support public services, such a fund barely exists in the United Kingdom.

This is partly because multinational fossil energy companies also pay among the lowest taxes in Europe, according to "Our Power," meaning that workers who are experiencing a cost-of-living crisis are failing to share in the record windfalls.

Despite the five so-called supermajor oil and gas companies recording almost $200 billion profit in 2022, fossil companies in the United Kingdom keep more revenue than in any country thanks to low taxes, "Our Power" notes.

Beneath the waves - Norway and CO2 emmissions

But the report also cautions that renewable offshore wind business models cannot be made "in the broken image of the oil industry."

Global energy giants such as Sweden's Vattenfall have invested heavily in offshore wind on the North Sea, but have benefited from a loophole that allows the industry to pay foreign workers below the minimum wage, Jeliazkov said. "Our Power" notes that one wind farm off the Scottish coast paid crew under £5 (€5.62) per hour while working 12 hour days, 7 days a week.

Public ownership benefits climate and workers

As energy workers around the world are being absorbed into the booming green power sector ,  offshore oil and gas workers in the United Kingdom want to lead the decarbonization of the sector.

"Workers have been very angry at the way companies have been treating them," Jeliazkov said. "They have been quite frustrated with the lack of government support."

"The future of the UK's energy system should be in the hands of workers and communities," she said. "Industry profiteering and government inaction has left us with soaring bills, declining working conditions and no plan for an energy transition."

The demands stated in "Our Power" aim to speed up the energy transition, including retraining and upskilling for about 32,000 North Sea oil and gas workers so they are ready to make the leap into the clean energy sector.

"These demands provide a blueprint for climate organisations to centre the needs of workers," "Our Power" states. The report adds that the demands can provide inspiration for workers in other industries also looking to transition.

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.