The North Sea’s transition is already happening, but without a coherent plan

April 23, 2024
Anna Carthy
Oil rig

Right now, the debate on the future of the North Sea is producing more heat than light. Scotland’s political leaders regularly trade blows over the issue and have even challenged each other to an Aberdeen face-off on the oil and gas industry’s future (date tbd). 

This jostling for political advantage helps workers and communities currently dependent on the oil and gas industry not one bit. 

The reality is the transition is already happening. The North Sea is an ageing basin with declining reserves and declining jobs, and has been for years. Over the past decade, the number of jobs supported by the oil and gas industry has halved. That’s 200,000 fewer jobs than in 2013. 

This is most acute in places like Aberdeen, which are left to face the brunt of the impacts of an unmanaged, disorderly decline of what was once a major industry. Aberdeen is experiencing a ‘disastrous decade’, with declining disposable income and wellbeing, and rising levels of fuel poverty and emergency food bank use.

The government’s approach to the North Sea’s transition has been to hand much of the responsibility to  the oil and gas industry. The current – and wholly inadequate – plan was, in fact, drawn up by the industry. And as a result, its focus is narrow and prioritises industry needs over workers and communities. 

That this is the case should come as no surprise. Oil and gas companies don’t have the capacity, but nor is it in their interests, to develop a broad and coherent plan for the North Sea energy transition that takes account of the needs of workers, the supply chain, communities, and the country as a whole. The multi-national, private equity-backed and state-owned fossil fuel companies that dominate the North Sea are not equipped to deliver for the public good. 

The public story told by the industry through its marketing material – positioning oil and gas companies as a driving force in the UK’s  transition – doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The majority of North Sea operators invest nothing in UK renewable energy. In fact, even their investment in oil and gas production in the basin has reached a record low, as they opt for a “sunset ride”, choosing to make as much money as they can while they can, with profits going to shareholders and into paying off debt.

Rather than leaving responsibility for the transition with oil and gas companies, the government must roll up its sleeves and get involved in managing the energy transition. Industrial policy of the nature required for a successful and fair transition is the domain of the state. Only an active, managed transition will  support workers, communities, businesses and local economies currently reliant on the oil and gas sector in the transition to clean energy.

This process must start with bringing the right people to the table and considering all those who are implicated by the transition. No more plans developed solely between Westminster and industry. Politicians in Holyrood must and always should have been involved, as must unions, workers and affected communities. For a fair transition, how the plan is developed is equally important to what the plan contains. Alongside a broader national vision of the energy transition, regional and local plans would also help ensure that opportunities are created to support local economies, that communities are not left behind, and that the people who are most affected have a say in their local transition agreements.

The government needs to urgently develop a strategy for the energy transition that supports the interests of workers, unions, and communities. A strategy that realises the enormous opportunities the North Sea offers today while setting the UK on a path to a safe and liveable climate tomorrow. To do this it needs a new plan: a new deal for the North Sea.