Most Oil Workers Haven’t Heard of the “Just Transition” — But They Do Want To Save Our Planet

While the Green New Deal argues for a "just transition" for fossil fuel industry workers, a new study shows few such workers have heard of the term. Workers can play a decisive role in greening the economy — but only if their own concerns and expertise are central to the transition process.

The falling price of oil and the unlikelihood of its recovery any time soon means that it is estimated that more than one million workers who provide oil field services globally will lose their jobs by the end of 2020. (Flickr)

When policymakers talk about a “just transition” for workers in fossil fuel industries, they rarely actually ask those workers what they want. In the UK, not a single public body has consulted offshore oil and gas workers about their livelihood and the future of the energy industry. This has massive ramifications for the possible success of a Green New Deal, not just here, but worldwide.

I work at Platform London, an environmental and social justice collective. Last week we, along with Friends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace, published our survey of 1,383 offshore oil and gas workers — a sample representing 4.5 percent of the total workforce in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS). The twenty-six questions, developed with oil workers and trade union officials, focused on the impacts of COVID-19 and the recent oil price crash, more general questions of offshore work, and alternative employment opportunities.

What may appear to be the key finding is that when asked if they had heard of a “just transition,” 91 percent of respondents said no. This term is commonly used by other people to refer to oil and gas workers’ particular struggles — and link them to other workers fighting against the future impacts of climate change. But the reality is that campaign groups, NGOs, and policymakers have so failed to reach the workers themselves that most do not even know this expression.

Even more important, however, is the fact that 82 percent said they would consider moving to a job outside of the oil and gas industry. More than half would be interested in renewables and offshore wind, with others expressing a preference for work decommissioning oil rigs as well as other low-carbon professions. From this and in-depth interviews I have carried out with these workers, it is clear that they are intensely aware of the impact their current work has on the world — and want to do something about it. Yet their knowledge and expertise are currently not being tapped.

Alternative Solutions

When you ask workers to develop a policy response to the issues facing their industry, they come up with very different solutions to what has so far been offered by the UK government or the companies involved. When asked to rate their confidence in local, Scottish, and UK government support on a scale from one, least confident, to five, most confident, the average was 1.7.

This is not surprising — in past downturns, the jobs guarantee schemes and retraining options were limited and insufficient. The increasing popularity of a just transition within government circles has, for the most part, shown no signs of moving beyond rhetoric. The Transition Training Fund was set up in response to the 2014 oil crisis, but it only covered workers willing to move within the oil sector, and it was shut down in 2018.

Scotland’s current £62 million Energy Transition Fund offers no guarantees of protection for the workforce, the creation of new opportunities, or even emissions reductions from the companies that benefit from it. What workers actually want is a jobs guarantee and a retraining program to move them out of an industry that they knew was dying well before COVID-19 accelerated its decline, and into renewables and other low-carbon sectors.

It is estimated that there is either “some” or a “good” overlap in 64 percent of the skills needed for workers in the oil and gas sector and workers in offshore renewables (see here, page 48). Yet what should be a relatively easy transition process is instead an arduous task. There is no significant private or government program for workers to transition easily and no standardized skills recognition system. Instead, they must pay private accreditation bodies, sometimes thousands of pounds, for recognition of skills they already have. One interviewee who tried to switch to renewables was told he had to pay for a course to certify he knew how to get off a boat, despite the fact he had worked offshore for twenty years.

Up to 85 percent of workers in the UKCS are contractors, so they have to pay for these processes themselves. Private and public investment in renewables in the UK has been all too slow. Instead, contracts are often given to countries with deplorable labor practices, even when there are suitable facilities, like BiFab in Scotland, lying empty. In the UK, pay and conditions are often worse in renewables, due to the poor history of unionization. It is clearly an unappealing prospect for oil and gas workers to pay their own retraining costs to shift to renewables when there is no promise of a job afterward — and even if they do get a job, it will likely pay less than their old one.

What we need instead is national investment, with the same drive that the UK government did for oil in the 1960s. For a Green New Deal to succeed in the time we have, we need to nationalize the fossil fuel majors and wind them down via a managed decline. The renewables companies that replace them would likely benefit from nationalization, too. The alternative is to prolong the inevitable collapse of oil and rely on the market to save us.

Looming Collapse

This isn’t just a British issue — it really matters for a Green New Deal around the world. The falling price of oil and the unlikelihood of its recovery any time soon means that it is estimated that more than one million workers who provide oil field services globally will lose their jobs by the end of 2020. In the United States, for instance, one hundred thousand jobs have already been lost this year in the sector, share values have collapsed, and a wave of bankruptcies loom. The United States mostly relies on fracking, and this is unprofitable when oil prices are low. There is a surplus of supply, and, as of May, there has been a decline of 65 percent in the number of active rigs in just one year.

To fail to consult these workers now is to make rash assumptions about what their needs are. For any just transition policy to be both effective and legitimate, it must represent the needs and skills of those involved. We cannot begin to build a fairer society if the means of getting there involves the mass unemployment of workers who are no longer considered necessary.

The survey we have undertaken is only the first step in a long process. Because the UK government has failed, we are developing our own participatory consultation led by workers in the oil and gas sector to develop recommendations to make their transition as easy and fair as possible. Governments in the UK, the United States, and around the world should be doing this and making their recommendations binding.

The day after we published our report, Shell announced nine thousand job cuts around the world. The time in which to act is running out. To move beyond rhetoric, we need to develop a worker-led consultation and transition in every relevant sector. Only then can we hope to have anything close to justice in the future world we desperately need to start building.

This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.

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Ben Lennon is a campaigner and researcher at Platform London, an environmental and social justice collective with campaigns focused on the global oil industry, fossil fuel finance, and building capacity toward climate justice and energy democracy. He is also the trade union co-lead at Labour for a Green New Deal.

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