For the first time in history, the price of US oil turned negative in April 2020. While the oil and gas sector has faced downturns before, the collapse of demand during lockdowns in the pandemic may prove to be its biggest challenge yet, write University College Dublin's Kieran Harrahill and Owen Douglas.

The ensuing glut of cheap oil has mired operations in the North Sea too, where as many as 30,000 jobs could be lost.

Signalling his ambition for a sea change in the region’s energy sector, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently pledged to power every home in the UK with electricity generated by offshore wind farms by 2030.

But if the North Sea skyline shifts from rigs to turbines, where does that leave oil and gas workers? What do they think about the emerging green economy and their place within it?

A recent survey by Platform, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace asked 1,383 people employed in North Sea oil and gas to give their thoughts on climate change, green energy and their industry and its future.

This rare insight revealed key barriers preventing workers in high-carbon industries from switching – and how their transition could be supported to hasten a low-carbon economy.

Talking to workers

Throughout our research, we’ve found that workers in 'dirty' industries tend to support environmentally friendly policies once they are certain they can secure alternative employment.

The findings of the survey support this, with 82% saying they would consider moving to a job outside of the oil and gas industry, and more than half expressing an interest in renewables and offshore wind. One worker said that “moving into renewables is something to feel good about”.

To encourage more workers into green energy, survey respondents said these new jobs should not recreate the same precarity that has led to low morale in the oil and gas industry.

Almost half of those interviewed said they had been made redundant or furloughed since March 2020, and they ranked job insecurity as their biggest reason for wanting to leave oil and gas. 

The construction and engineering skills that workers accrue in the oil and gas industry are useful elsewhere in the energy sector. But some survey respondents said they felt their knowledge and expertise was currently 'untapped'. Many were enthusiastic about sharing their experiences publicly, which is notable in an industry with a history of blacklisting

More than half of those interviewed were keen to retrain and work in offshore wind, and only one in five wanted a career outside of the energy sector.

But while training might have previously been funded by employers, the report outlined how the cost of obtaining necessary certification now often falls on workers across the offshore energy sector. One respondent said “programmes for people in the industry should be free or at least accessible. Education is expensive”. 

Just transitions 

We research how policy can reallocate labour from highly polluting industries, such as those in the fossil fuel sector, to climate-friendly ones which can help decarbonise society, like renewable energy.

The effort to ensure that this process considers, consults, and involves workers in high-carbon industries, supporting them to retrain and make the switch to cleaner work, is known as a 'just transition'. 

We have found that there are four broad principles for guiding just transitions. Workers in high-carbon sectors like the fossil fuel industry should be consulted and able to inform plans for the future.

Enough suitable substitute jobs in cleaner industries should be created, with opportunities for retraining available to all who want them, regardless of their means.

And lastly, where retraining or re-employment is not possible, the government must support workers and their communities by investing in their future and, where necessary, providing compensation. 

Worryingly, 91% of oil and gas workers surveyed in the recent report had never heard the term 'just transition' before. But when asked what should be done to support their move away from a sector in which many feel unhappy, their responses more or less tracked the principles that researchers like ourselves had identified.

This is encouraging, as it implies there is an emerging consensus among workers and industry experts about the kind of pathway that could wind down polluting industries fairly. 

The report suggested particular proposals that could assuage some of the worries workers raised, such as a jobs guarantee to create full employment for former oil and gas workers, and standardising the certification for offshore work across oil and wind to allow an easy transition between the two. 

More than simply supporting workers, a just transition could unlock their potential to innovate in the green economy. With relevant education and retraining, workers could use the practical knowledge they already have to identify what is needed to help renewable energy overtake oil and gas as the dominant means of fuelling society.

Authors: , PhD candidate in bioeconomy, University College Dublin, and , occasional lecturer in planning and environmental policy, University College Dublin. This article first appeared in The Conversation.