The changing face of the North Sea oil industry

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-61437156

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In Europe's oil capital, everyone knows the boom times are over.

Faced with the climate emergency, Aberdeen is having to move away from an industry that has created half a million jobs and brought almost incalculable wealth to north east Scotland.

But what happens next? Some young people are still banking on a career in the oil industry. Others are focusing on a future in renewable energy.

As politicians argue over a "just transition" to a greener future, thousands of jobs and the future of the planet depend on finding the right answers.

Who are the oil engineers of the future?

At Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University (RGU), drilling and well engineering students are still hopeful of pursuing a career in oil and gas.

The vast majority are from parts of the world where energy transition is not so high up the political agenda - and many have no plans to stay in Scotland after they graduate.

They know that the world is still dependent on fossil fuels to heat homes, fuel vehicles and power industry.

Despite the moves towards producing more clean energy in Scotland, more than three-quarters (76.5%) of the country's energy consumption came from oil and gas in 2019.

Affan Peshimam, 30, from India, is following in the footsteps of his father who worked in the oil and gas sector in the North Sea.

He said: "I love the smell of petrol. I love working offshore away from civilisation."

Affan Peshimam will return to India to pursue a career in oil and gas

And he's convinced that he can enjoy a full career in the industry in India once he's graduated in Aberdeen.

"There's still a lot of oil remaining, at least 30 or 40 years more," he said. "Every time they say the peak has come, I don't think so. Maybe for the North Sea.

"For certain parts of the world where there's no oil left, the peak has come. But in Africa and India and the Far East we still have so much reserves left we can't just keep them.

"Of course we have started some solar but we are still dependent on oil and gas. And coal, obviously."

Affan is right about the North Sea - production peaked about 20 years ago and since then the UK has gone from producing more oil and gas than it needs, to importing it from other countries.

As prices rise following the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this has raised concerns about UK energy security.

It has led to calls from some quarters for more oil fields - like the controversial Cambo field - to be opened to offset decades of decline.

Ryan Crighton, of the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, said the growing energy deficit leaves Scotland with two choices: "To produce more domestically, with full control over the regulatory environment in which it is extracted. Or to import more energy from overseas, without the tax revenues that the North Sea gives us.

"The latter makes little economic sense and even less environmental sense."

Is a new oil field climate change hypocrisy?

How will oil towns survive move to greener world?

Others - including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon - argue that accelerating the transition to more renewable forms of energy is the best response to the crisis.

Eta Etta-Agbor, another drilling and well engineering student at RGU, knows she is acquiring skills which could be transferred to the renewables industry, if it comes to it.

Drilling and well engineering student Eta Etta-Agbor believes she could switch to the renewables industry

But the 42-year-old from Nigeria - which has some of the largest oil reserves in Africa - aspires to work for one of the majors like Shell or Chevron.

"What we are learning here, I could easily switch into the (renewables) industry but the fact is there will still be lots of drilling taking place," she said.

And she pointed to the importance of gas in generating electricity - the UK, and England and Wales in particular, still relies on it heavily.

"Gas is essentially like the next fuel that can be used for electricity so we'll still be drilling more gas in the future so I'll still be relevant in the industry," she said.

But over the next decade the mix of fuel generating electricity in Scotland will be transformed beyond recognition.

Coal power will end and many of our nuclear power stations will come to the end of their lives. Offshore wind is likely to become the powerhouse of our economy.

The ScotWind leasing round alone, announced in January, will generate enough electricity when it's at maximum capacity to power about 85% of the UK's homes.

It will see 17 new offshore wind projects built in waters around Scotland, with each expected to spend an average of £1.5bn on its supply chain.

Will ScotWind auction deliver a renewables revolution?

The projects - many backed by big name oil and gas firms with the deep pockets necessary to invest in new technology - will also need a new workforce.

Their existing employees are among those switching to the greener jobs.

Who is making the move to renewables?

Harry Waugh is a project manager for an offshore wind farm

Harry Waugh was initially attracted to the oil and gas industry because of his love of engineering, problem-solving and "big things".

He worked as an engineer in oil and gas for 11 years before moving into renewables as a project manager for an offshore wind farm.

There is a "ridiculous amount" of experience among his former colleagues which could be transferred into offshore renewables, the 34-year-old from Perth said.

And as wages in the renewable sector begin to equal those in oil and gas, he expects to see more people make the leap.

But he warned that green jobs were unlikely to be able to replace every traditional North Sea position.

There were 4,700 full time equivalent jobs supported by Scotland's offshore wind industry in 2019, compared to 86,000 oil and gas jobs in the same year.

"An offshore oil and gas production plant is quite a complicated beast," he said. "A $3bn oil and gas plant will have 100 people offshore; a $3bn wind farm will have nobody offshore.

"It's not a job-for-job situation. In development and commissioning, it's the same numbers but as soon as the turbines are spinning, it flicks to a different beast."

Once wind turbines are constructed, they require few staff to keep the blades spinning

As the offshore wind industry begins to ramp up, Ryan Crighton is clear that Scotland must avoid a "cliff edge" end to North Sea oil and gas production.

"We need to keep this highly-skilled [oil and gas] workforce in work while we develop the low carbon technologies of the future," the policy director of Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce said.

"Those jobs aren't there at scale right now. However, if we can manage this transition correctly, then research suggests we could end up with more people employed in our energy sector than we do right now. That is the outcome we should strive for.

"This region will benefit from being one of the first to tackle these challenges, and over time has the potential to become a net exporter of net zero."

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BP suggests UK renewables jobs to match oil boom

And BP's head of UK operations, Louise Kingham agrees. She said they are "quite convinced" enough jobs can be created in its alternative energies business to replace those lost by the shift away from oil.

"We have real ambition to make sure that we can provide opportunities for people to move from one aspect of the energy work that we do to another."

Who else is adapting to the change?

It's not just the engineers on the rigs who are seeing huge changes in Aberdeen's energy industry.

Many of those in businesses which have long supported oil and gas firms' traditional operations are adapting to changing priorities.

Among them are firms like North Star, which started out in fishing before the oil boom of the 1970s saw them dip their toe in new waters.

They now have dozens of ships supporting the oil and gas sector but have just won contracts to provide vessels for the Dogger Bank wind farm off the north east coast of England.

Their cadet training programme creates the next generation of mariners to support whatever industry is out there.

Courtney Stanton is excited about the prospect of supporting the renewables industry

Engine cadet Courtney Stanton is responsible for machinery maintenance on the Grampian Freedom, a 980 tonne standby vessel with a length of 58 metres.

She explained: "As long as there's going to be oil rigs in the sea there's always going to need to be a standby ship or a supply ship."

She said the addition of the renewables sector is a "welcome and needed change" and believes it would be exciting to work in this area.

But at the start of her career she is not fazed saying "jobs will be created which is brilliant and with us in the merchant navy, we tend to go to where the demand is."

Meanwhile Paul Hudson runs Maersk Training's UK operation, which is centred on Aberdeen.

He explained: "We all know the pace of energy transition is picking up so we, like other businesses, just have to adapt to that. It's why we've made investments in new facilities specific to the renewables industry for example."

Those new facilities at their Portlethen site, south of Aberdeen, focus on rope and climbing skills as well as more traditional needs like firefighting.

Workers are more likely to travel to wind turbines by boat rather than helicopter which is more common for rigs.

Paul adds that demand for renewable skills is growing but "for us, oil and gas will still remain a big part of the throughput of training that we do."