THE BIG STORY
RMT organiser Jake Molloy is preoccupied with the missed opportunities of the oil-boom years − and full of dread that the same mistakes are about to be made over renewables in hydrogen electrolyzers; 2,300 to 6,100 in hydro-pumped storage; and 2,900 to 8,000 in decommissioning.8 But it has also modelled a ‘worst case outcome for renewables job creation’, which could see fewer than 10,000 jobs created in total.
Électricité de France, the multinational energy giant that is 84.5 per cent owned by the French state, is currently building the massive Neart Na Gaoithe (NNG) wind farm east of Scotland. Just miles away on the Fife coast lies Burntisland Fabrications (BiFab), the obvious place to manufacture the ‘ jackets’ which anchor each wind turbine. Having successfully converted from building infrastructure for oil and gas rigs, BiFab should be the poster child of just transition. But even though it badly needed the work to keep operating, the company was awarded a contract for just eight of NNG’s 54 jackets.
The lion’s share went instead to the Italy-headquartered multinational Saipem, which plans to build the jackets on Karimun island in Indonesia. According to a promotional video with a soundtrack to rival a Hollywood blockbuster, Saipem is ‘committed to focus on local content’ in Karimun, wants to ‘ link to the promotion of local entrepreneurship and skilled labour’ and is ‘focused on the retention of [skilled workers] and their families on the island’.9
The minimum wage is determined on a regional basis in Indonesia, and in Karimun it is $232 a month. New Internationalist asked Saipem for both the minimum and average wage for workers at its yard on the island, but the company declined to answer. ‘In all the locations where Saipem is present, we operate in compliance with the local laws and regulations,’ a spokesperson said.
It’s clear that multinationals burnishing their green credentials in Europe and North America can get cheaper labour in the Global South – but the environmental impact of globalization cannot be ignored either. ‘They’re burning millions of tonnes of some of the dirtiest coal in the planet, in China and the Middle East, to create the steel,’ says the RMT’s Molloy. ‘They’re then manufacturing the jackets and the turbine pillars, then they’re loading them onto diesel-driven ships and shipping them halfway round the world.’
Close to home A sustainable solution, Molloy believes, could be found much closer to home. ‘We’ve got thousands upon thousands of tonnes of steel, sitting waiting to be recycled,’ he says of the oil and gas rigs that currently pepper the North Sea. As it stands, little of the North Sea decommissioning work is taking place in Scotland – and the environmental consequences will be felt in the Global South. ‘We’re selling it off to Turkey, Norway’s picking some of it up, or it’s getting landed on a Chinese ship and dumped on a beach in Bangladesh.’
If governments are forced to take drastic action to cut emissions, there will be no shortage of work. It will not be a question of bringing unemployment to Karimun for the sake of Fife – both can play their part. But there are compelling reasons why Western countries should fabricate their own green infrastructure: for the sake of reducing emissions, for the sake of shouldering their share of land and air pollution, and for the sake of giving their working-class communities a stake in fighting climate change.
Molloy is clearly exasperated. All parts of the industry – corporations, government, the regulator – have refused to put long-term strategy before short-term financial interests. He is preoccupied with the missed opportunities of the oil-boom years – and full of dread that the same mistakes are about to be made over renewables. Britain’s oil wealth is hoarded by corporations, whereas in Norway the state has amassed a $1.3-trillion sovereign wealth fund thanks to its public-led oil industry. This is now being invested in renewable energy, while Scotland’s wind farms are almost exclusively owned by foreign governments and private investors.7 ‘I wish I could speak Norwegian,’ says Molloy with a sigh. ‘I’d probably move.’
Even if there were a ready industrial base for manufacturing green infrastructure in Britain, convincing fossil-fuel workers that they could transfer their skills would still be a mammoth task for politicians. With so few transfers having happened to date, the proposition is fast losing credibility. It will be far more difficult to solve the climate emergency if governments do not face sufficient electoral pressure from working-class communities to change course. That is highly unlikely if these communities know this will result in their own economic destitution. Any visitor to the Aberdeen heliports will be struck by the number of accents they will hear from northeast England, one of the regions hit the hardest by mine and factory closures from the 1980s onwards.
A just transition done properly would offer sufficient employment for the existing workforce – much of which is nearing retirement age – in residual offshore extraction and decommissioning. But the key test is whether the offspring of oil and gas workers can find work that is equally skilled and remunerated as that of their parents’. That is a claim, sadly, that few miners’ children can make. ●
CONRAD LANDIN IS A NEW INTERNATIONALIST CO-EDITOR.
1 ‘Boris is accused of “spitting in the face” of Red Wall voters…’, MailOnline, 6 August 2021, nin.tl/redwall 2 ‘Boris Johnson’s smug coal mines quip fatally misunderstands history’, The National, 6 August 2021, nin.tl/gibbs 3 ‘Remarks by President Biden at the Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate Session’, The White House, 23 April 2021, nin.tl/bidengreen 4 ‘Trudeau promises green jobs for Canada as his leadership hangs in the balance’, Climate Home News, 24 September 2020, nin.tl/trudeaugreen 5 ‘The challenges of defining a “green job”’, ONS, 7 April 2021, nin.tl/onsgreen 6 ‘Offshore’, October 2020, nin.tl/platform 7 ‘Scotland’s faltering green industrial revolution’, Political Quarterly, Vol 2, No 1, January-March 2021, nin.tl/politicalquarterly ; ‘Scotland’s renewable jobs crisis & Covid-19’, STUC, June 2020 nin.tl/stuc ‘Low carbon and renewable energy economy estimates’, ONS, 20 May 2021, nin.tl/onsdata 8 ‘Green jobs for Scotland’, STUC, April 2021, nin.tl/greenjobsscotland 11 ‘saipem karimun indonesia’, YouTube, 31 May 2013, nin.tl/Saipem