What will happen to oil and gas workers as the world turns carbon neutral?
Building a wind farm or solar energy project is nothing professionals in fossil fuels can’t manage, but there are too few programmes to help them retrain
Adriaan Kamp used to be a die-hard oilman. After 17 years at Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell, the 54-year-old Dutchman now runs a consultancy based in Oslo advising national governments on transitioning to cleaner energy.
“In 2007 to 2008, we were looking at future energy scenarios in the Shell Group [and] there was a question on my desk about how do we play with renewables,” he says. “And from there, the journey started.”
If the energy sector is to become carbon neutral by 2070, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change insists must happen to avoid a temperature rise of more than two degrees celsius, hundreds of thousands of workers will need to follow Kamp’s lead.
The renewable sector in Europe alone could produce 6.1m new jobs by 2050, according to trade union Sustainlabour. By the same token, divestment in coal, oil and gas, and other carbon-intensive sectors could lead to a massive shake-up elsewhere in the global labour market.
In terms of skills, transitioning from old to new energy sectors should be comparatively straightforward. There’s “no magic” to renewable technologies, says Kamp. “Managing a wind farm or solar project is nothing a good oil and gas man who has built or organised facilities cannot manage,” he says.
Sophie Bennett, policy officer for Renewables UK, agrees. Many of the technical and managerial needs of the low-carbon energy sector are similar to those in traditional energy and power industries, she says.
But despite high demand for such expertise in the renewables sector, the transfer of skilled labour from fossil fuel sectors remains a trickle. If that’s to increase, governments need to make firm commitments and establish a long-term vision in support of energy transition, Bennett argues.
“Policy uncertainty on renewables can hinder expenditure on skills by the industry. Plus, the skills interventions that are needed – such as apprenticeships and education outreach programmes – can require a long incubation period,” she says.
The low-carbon sector itself is making small inroads with respect to the skills it needs. In the UK, for instance, the renewable training network provides training courses for technical, engineering and business roles. German engineering giant Siemens, meanwhile, offers a two-year training programme to equip graduates for work in the wind industry.
Few equivalents can be found in fossil fuel industries. There’s a partial exception in the mining sector: mining firm Anglo American, headquartered in London, has a formal mine closure policy that includes employee reskilling and retraining. However, such re-employment schemes rarely direct workers specifically to the low-carbon energy sector.
The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) marks a rare attempt to do so. As part of a five-year retraining programme ahead of the anticipated decommissioning of two nuclear power stations in north Wales, workers were offered courses to obtain professional certificates valid in the renewable sector. Almost 9% of the 534 participating employees chose to do so.
Gerallt Llewelyn Jones, managing director of Menter Môn Cyf, which administered the retraining on behalf of the NDA, believes all carbon-intensive industries should be obliged to offer employees retraining in line with government decarbonisation targets. “If it can be done in nuclear, then it should be done in the equally wealthy fossil fuel sector,” he says.
Even in the event of such a system, many believe that governments need to take the lead, not industry.
“It’s public authorities’ responsibility to create the policy and investment framework where energy transition will take place,” says Benjamin Denis, policy adviser on climate change at the European Trade Union Confederation. “Companies of course have a responsibility, but I don’t expect Shell or BP to take voluntary initiatives to pay attention to workers impacted by the transition.”
Decarbonisation is an emotive issue for many labour unions. Earlier this year German trade unions threatened mass mobilisation in the wake of aggressive energy transition plans. Denis maintains that clean energies are not yet a “job killer”, but insists governments must provide training programmes to avoid them becoming so in the future.
“We can’t decarbonise the economy, which is still massively fossil fuel-based, without changing the labour market. That’s why we are calling for a just transition,” he says.
Examples of government-led integrated training strategies remain scant, however. Those that do exist, such as in Denmarkand Scotland, tend to be relatively small scale and locally targeted.
A recent OECD study of green skills provision in Europe confirms that many governments’ green skills policies are “uncertain and fragmented”. Fuelling the current disarray is a lack of data on the types of jobs that employers in low-carbon industries will need in the future. The OECD advises governments to integrate green skills into mainstream education, rather than creating separate systems of training. It also recommends a focus on transferal skills rather than on occupation-specific training.
As for financing such programmes, the European Commission says money is already there in existing green-growth funds. In its green employment initiative (pdf), released in 2014, it singles out pots such as the European social fund and the European development fund. In the US, meanwhile, training providers and industries can access a variety of federal government grants for green skills initiatives.
Trade unions, however, argue that additional funds should also be found to support communities that will be especially hard-hit by a shift to cleaner energy – such as North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany and Poland’s Silesia, which are both highly dependent on coal production.
“In such regions, if you do not organise a strong social protection system, decarbonisation will have dramatic effects on the workforce and the communities,” says Denis, adding that such a system falls to local authorities, national governments and the EU to create jointly.
Back in Oslo, former oilman Kamp welcomes any attempts governments can make to inspire people to pursue careers in clean energy sectors. “Creating an image of the renewable industry as an exciting career has to be a good thing,” he says. “But, at the end, there needs to be a job market that delivers it.”
- The Guardian News
- Published on:
- August 27, 2015
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