Press play to listen to this article
ABERDEEN — Oil workers in Aberdeen have every reason to loathe green groups. Instead, on the precipice of the end of oil, they are building a tentative alliance.
“A couple of years ago the only thing we would have shared was a square go” — Scottish for a fist fight — said Scott Agnew, a seafarer in the offshore industry since 1999. That’s no surprise since climate campaigners wanted to bring to an end the very industry on which their livelihoods depend — and fast.
But that antipathy is thawing.
Agnew was nursing a beer in the sickly LED-lighting of the Aberdeen Douglas Hotel ballroom. He’d just watched an event on the sidelines of the 125th Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) where leaders from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) had shared a stage with environmental campaigners.
Both had come with a common demand: an exit from the North Sea oil and gas industry that protects the thousands of people whose jobs depend on it. The buzzy phrase they use is “just transition.”
In front of a small audience, tempted to the event by pakoras and Peronis, both the unions and the green groups said they recognized that the age of oil was, sooner or later, coming to an end. They don’t necessarily agree on the details — such as when the end should come or whether the U.K. should open up new oil and gas fields to ease the current energy squeeze.
That meeting represents vast progress after a decades-old global turf war between unions and green groups that has hurt efforts to cut the emissions that are heating up the planet.
Most environmentalists will admit — at least in private — that one of the green movement’s greatest political screw ups has been its indifference to the fate of millions of workers in high-carbon industries. That’s allowed populists, including U.S. President Donald Trump, to drive a wedge between the climate agenda and workers.
But in Aberdeen, the workers know which way the wind is blowing. The industry is in decline and they are looking for the off-ramp. It’s here that they have found common cause with green groups.
“We’re never going to agree on everything. But we agree on more than we disagree on. And let’s compromise on the rest and work through it,” said one of the panelists, RMT’s Aberdeen regional organizer Jake Molloy.
The future of oil towns like Aberdeen might depend on their success. People in the city look to Britain’s last major energy transition — the disorderly end of coal extraction from which many former mining communities across the country have never fully recovered — as a warning sign of what might await.
Transition to what?
That history is in danger of repeating. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants the U.K. to become the “Saudi Arabia of wind” — a phrase he cribbed from former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond — and promised hundreds of thousands of jobs in the clean economy. But even as renewable energy has steadily increased, jobs in Scotland’s clean energy sector are actually in decline. According to STUC analysis of jobs figures, they fell from 23,200 in 2014 to 20,500 in 2020.
For oil and gas workers, “there’s nothing to transition to,” said Molloy. Once they are built, wind farms require far fewer workers than oil rigs. The jobs are largely in manufacturing and workers have seen those big contracts head overseas. Scotland’s energy transition is “happening in the port of Sharjah,” said Molloy, referring to a recent deal to build 200 turbines awarded to a company based in the United Arab Emirates.
Earlier that day, in an address to the trades union congress, which was held over three days in April in the city’s columned Music Hall, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon conceded Scotland “has not done as well as we should have done in securing supply chain jobs from renewable energy, and perhaps, especially from wind energy.” Amid stony silence, she promised that new leases granted in January would mark a “turning point.”
Unions are still waiting to see the proof. Speaking later that day at the event with the green groups, RMT Secretary-General Mick Lynch said: “It’s like one of these unicorns, ‘just transition.’ Everybody thinks they know what it will look like. But nobody’s ever seen one.”
That’s not quite true. In Denmark, oil workers are switching smoothly to a homespun wind industry. Spain’s deal with coal unions to provide regional stimulus cash as mines closed has been viewed as a model for similar shifts. In the United States, President Joe Biden’s administration has pushed offshore wind companies to commit to union-only employment.
What people in Aberdeen can see are missed opportunities. Despite decades of enrichment from beneath the sea bed, the bust and boom cycle of the oil price is written on Aberdeen’s Union St shopping district. Even though oil prices are returning to a high point, “For lease” signs and boarded up windows are dotted between the bookmakers and phone repairers that have scuttled in like economic cockroaches. Creatives have fled, driven out by rents only those in the industry could afford, hollowing out the culture. “That used to be a nice shop,” said one passer-by, nodding to a window smeared with white paint.
“They could have paved the streets with gold here,” said Agnew. “Instead they’re paved with dog shit just now.”
Agnew is living the energy transition. He spent most of the last decade aboard ships shunting rigs around the North Sea. Then he was made redundant in 2018 after the mid-decade oil price slump entered its fourth year. Two years later, having found a new job, he was laid off again when COVID hit.
Now he’s freelancing and slowly picking up more work in the renewables industry. Times haven’t been made better by the uptick in the oil market, driven by the pandemic and war in Ukraine, which has delivered record profits to oil companies. Agnew said his current daily wages were around 50 percent what they were during the last oil boom.
“I’ve been looking to move over the last few years anyway,” he said. “We hit peak oil … so the industry is obviously going to be in decline before you take into consideration that transition to renewables.” (Data from the North Sea Transition Authority indicates the peak year was probably 2019.)
“I’m a little bit lucky because my background is in shipping so I can move between industries. But the main problem of moving between industries is certificate passports,” he said.
Around 90 percent of U.K. oil and gas workers have skills that can be applied in other energy sectors. But each industry in Aberdeen — oil, offshore wind, shipping — has its own, privatized certification schemes. That means completely transferable skills from oil rigs are not recognized on a wind farm. The cost of a single certification can run into the thousands of pounds, leaving many oil and gas workers frozen out of the wind boom.
It’s here that green groups have found a toe hold. In their first official joint campaign, RMT and a coalition of NGOs — Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Platform — are pushing for an offshore training “passport” that would allow workers to use the same skills in different industries.
It’s a practical measure that demonstrates how the alliance benefits both groups. With green voices in their corner, unions that saw their members trapped between a deregulated new industry and an old, declining one are becoming a part of the conversation. For green groups, workers are now meaningful new allies for an eventual end to fossil fuels.
The bigger game for both unions and green groups is to try and push the U.K. and Scottish governments to develop an industrial policy that provides for those whose jobs are already being destroyed. The unionists talk about industrial clusters and green energy hubs. They want wind leases on the Scottish seas to come with guarantees to build turbines locally. Together, they say, that could just about replace the 70,000-odd jobs that remain directly linked to the oil and gas sector.
It sounds familiar, because it’s the same policy that’s been promoted by the government in Westminster — albeit with a focus on electoral battleground seats in England’s Humberside and Teeside. In Scotland, a Just Transition Commission has been set up to build on these ideas. Molloy sits on it. But he’s critical of its “monitor and evaluate” mission. “There’s nothing happening” to monitor, he said.
The clean energy industry association RenewableUK urges patience. Representatives of the offshore drilling and wind certification schemes are in talks about creating a skills passport, said Head of Public Affairs Nathan Bennett. He added that there had been a shift in government attitudes, away from simply driving down cost and toward growing the U.K.’s supply chain. Floating wind could be a bonanza for the U.K. and build on the floating platform engineering skills in the oil and gas sector. But those changes will all take time, he said.
Getting to the point where environmentalists and oil workers are actively campaigning together has meant overcoming decades of distrust.
Green groups were viewed by workers on the rigs with a mixture of suspicion and ridicule, said Molloy. When protesters from Greenpeace boarded a rig during a typical stunt in 2019, the unions were appalled.
“We were saying to Greenpeace: ‘What the f*ck are you doing?’” Molloy said. “‘You’re calling out oil workers as demons and monsters. They’re not. They’re working people who are caught in an industry, which they accept as much as you do has to come to an end because of the climate crisis.’”
Building a bridge across the divide has taken time, effort and a lot of beers, said Ryan Morrison, a campaigner with FOE.
There’s a pub called the Spider’s Web in Dyce, a village on Aberdeen’s granite gray outskirts. It’s next to the airport and when workers step off the chopper from fortnight-long stints on the rigs, that’s where they go. On the wall there’s a sign directing them to pile their heavy kit bags over by the dart board.
Morrison and Gabrielle Jeliazkov, a former union and community organizer from Canada who now works for Platform in London, have spent many days here over the past two years. They would watch flight radars for returning helicopters and head for the bar, striking up conversations, playing pool with offshore workers, hearing their stories of COVID layoffs, trying to get a sense of what they wanted.
Climate activism, said Morrison, is about presenting “a vision of a future that is responsive to all of those needs.”
In his eyes, Scotland is ground zero for the end of the oil industry. A wealthy country with a long history of emitting carbon, but also a small industry relative to the rest of its economy — oil and gas make up 1.2 percent of the U.K.’s economy, while they contribute 10 percent of Nigeria’s economy and oil alone is 40 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP. If it doesn’t happen in Aberdeen, how can it happen elsewhere? “Our transition has to be one of the fastest, if not the fastest,” Morrison said.
They eventually met with Molloy — after he ignored their emails for months. Finally, Molloy said, he’d found environmentalists who were willing to listen. “We changed their minds,” he said.
Molloy helped Morrison and Jeliazkov put out a survey asking workers what they needed in their current and future work. They expected at best a couple of hundred responses, instead they got 1,500. Dozens of workshops and hundreds of phone calls followed as they diligently maintained relationships.
“I don’t call my own grandparents, but I’m constantly on the phone to offshore workers,” said Morrison.
They aren’t the only ones to have made the effort to build bridges.
During the COP26 climate talks in November last year, cleansing and rubbish collection workers from the GMB union staged a series of strikes against working conditions in the host city Glasgow. The strikes were panned by some green groups and politicians who saw it as opportunism in the face of the climate crisis.
But Swedish activist Greta Thunberg joined the workers on the picket line, saying on Twitter: “Climate justice also means social justice and that we leave no one behind.” GMB workers then joined Thunberg on a youth climate march.
Union officials from STUC said it was a huge moment for GMB, which has campaigned fiercely for fracking in Britain. At the congress in Aberdeen, several unions signed on to calls for a rapid shift to a clean economy. They included GMB.
‘Middle class hobbyists’
Just transition dogma is everywhere in the green movement, with most groups claiming to be operating with the interests of workers near at heart. The same goes for governments in Holyrood and Westminster and their slavish mentions of thousands of clean energy jobs.
But unions are wary of lip service.
There are still too many “middle class … hobbyists” in the green movement, said Ronnie McDonald.
McDonald is a living history of North Sea oil. POLITICO met him at the maritime museum, reminiscing by a model the Murchison rig, which he once worked on. He founded the organization that would become RMT after a series of deadly rig disasters in the late-1980s.
“The arguments [about the need to phase out fossil fuels] being put forward by the environmentalists are entirely valid,” he said.
He said that Extinction Rebellion and spin-offs like Just Stop Oil are continuing environmental protests that turn workers against them rather than finding a “commonality of interests.” Campaigners from the latter have been climbing onto tankers and other infrastructure to disrupt transport of oil around Britain in recent months — invariably the people confronted and inconvenienced by the activists are workers.
“The nihilistic approach, the analysis — black and white — tells me that it’s a cult,” said McDonald. “And if they were the only face of environmentalism they would destroy the necessary framework needed for a proper debate and discussion.”
On the day after the event at the Douglas Hotel, Extinction Rebellion activists turned up at the trades union congress, emailing STUC a few hours before to let them know they were coming in “solidarity.” Beneath a lime green banner calling for a “JUST TRANSITION” several activists, including Simon MacLardie, leaned on a bright pink table set up by the entrance of the venue, striking up conversations with passers-by.
They made for an odd sight: Occupying the same space as a union picket line, but espousing a message of support. “WE NEED GREEN JOBS NOW,” said a flyer.
It doesn’t take much to scratch the surface and find the old antipathy that greens have felt for workers on the rigs. POLITICO suggested to MacLardie that some unionists believed Extinction Rebellion were undermining both workers and the green movement.
“It sounds like these trade unionists don’t understand the extent of the climate emergency,” he shot back.
It’s an exchange that highlights just how much work it takes for a real alliance to take hold. “It’s about trust” and demonstrating they are really committed to a compromise, said Morrison.
“Even a year ago,” said McDonald, “I’d have been dubious” that the unions and green groups could ever work together, “but now I see it as essential.”
This article is part of the Climate, Changed series.
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network