Moving to a green energy system and a zero-emissions society without leaving people behind is an enormous challenge. Many oil and gas workers are actually ready for the change, but the oil and gas industry itself is slowing the process, holding back real progress.
Having worked in the oil industry in Aberdeen and abroad for decades, what I have seen feels like the industry applying all of its power to self-preservation, in the face of the immutable truths that fossil fuels will one day run out and that we must keep what of them remains in the ground.
Oil and gas workers need alternatives and fast. I have seen what happens in communities where oil and gas jobs dry up with no plan B in place. When the price of oil crashed in 2014, thousands of people in the region lost their job. I know former colleagues who used to work on multimillion-pound projects and are now unemployed or working in shops on the minimum wage.
I know that moving from oil and gas to renewables is possible. My skills helped me understand and troubleshoot the emissions models that underpin sustainable development plans. My skills allowed me to evaluate and optimise integrated renewable supply systems, and also decarbonise sewage treatment processes. Many people in the oil industry – including those who work offshore – have even more skills that can be transferred into the renewable energy sector, such as working on offshore wind farms.
But it still feels like the industry is refusing to adapt, all the while pretending to be leaders in “energy transition”. In the hope of selling more gas, the industry is pushing dirty (blue) hydrogen based on the yet-untested promise that carbon capture and storage will be able to remove any emissions at scale.
Cop26 in Glasgow is a chance to remind ourselves that the leaders of the oil and gas industry may not be on our side. They sell and make a profit from fossil fuels and need to be removed from the conversation as their interests are in conflict with lowering emissions.
The government must put an immediate stop to further oil exploitation licences such as Cambo, and set accelerated decommissioning timelines for those currently in existence. We needn’t worry about the financial collapse of oil companies: in addition to continued oil production as the fields decline, half of their £50bn costs of decommissioning and clean-up work in the North Sea will be paid by the taxpayer.
At the same time, efforts can be made to grow the green economy. Once truly running, there will be jobs aplenty, as shown in many in-depth studies. To get there, the government needs to lead strongly by setting specific and urgent decarbonisation goals, upon which the industry can build long-term plans.
Finally, cooperation between government, industry, unions and recruiters is needed to match workers’ skills, attitudes and aptitudes to new job openings. This will require facilitation with some retraining opportunities, as the green sector still seems reluctant to consider oil industry CVs.
We need to move away from fossil fuel production – and making the best use of the experienced and capable people in the fossil fuel industry will both accelerate the transition and ensure nobody gets left behind.