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Rebecca Buchan: North-east should use brief oil boost to plan ahead for the future

Rebecca Buchan asks why we waited so long to think of a future after oil and gas and insists the focus on renewables is vital for our future
Rebecca Buchan asks why we waited so long to think of a future after oil and gas and insists the focus on renewables is vital for our future

If you’d have told me five years ago that, one day, in the fairly distant future, the oil price would be over $100 a barrel and BoJo would be instructing us to drill, baby, drill I would have probably replied: “In your dreams.”

But, these last few weeks have proved me wrong.

Aberdeen has spent the past eight years dealing with the effects of the oil and gas downturn and they are clear for all to see. You just need to take a walk down Union Street to witness the devastation which is largely attributed to the decline.

This week, on my morning walk to work, I was both saddened and depressed by what I could see around me and it got me thinking: would things still look the same if we had committed to energy transition earlier?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not oblivious to the work of the likes of Opportunity North East, and it should be commended. But its formation in 2015, when the jobs were already being cut across the sector, feels like it could have been a little too late.

Why didn’t we plan for diversification years ago?

Union Street, Aberdeen (Photo: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson)

Greedy, not smart

The city, and the wider north-east, have been reliant on the oil and gas industry for 50 years, and we have reaped all of the rewards over time.

But we were greedy, and not smart. We took, took, took, without thinking stop, invest and save.

As I entered the world of work, I remember people telling me the importance of a pension. That safety net to see me through retirement, when the cash is not regularly rolling in.

So, why, if that premise is so obvious, did we not prepare for the retirement of oil and gas?

I have heard people rejoice over the last few weeks about the soaring oil price and news of the potential development of the Cambo field.

Climate activists protest during COP26 in Glasgow (Photo: PA)

“This will be what we need to get the house prices back up there,” I listened to one woman gleefully exclaim.

“Just watch, we are going to see new blood pouring into Aberdeen to work again after the exodus in 2015.”

But the reality is that, while perhaps there will be an influx of oil and gas jobs in the very immediate future, it is, of course, to be short-lived and is not going to be the saviour of our city.

Breathing space – not a new bubble

This period should allow us the breathing space to focus on transition and what that might look like.

And while, yes, it is a relief to know that the sector which supports 71,500 jobs across Scotland still has a healthy life ahead of it for some time, we can’t lose focus on what is to come next and what we want the future of Aberdeen to be. Both for the sake of our home and the climate.

We have been greedy now for too long. We created this mess and we need to fix it

It shocked me to read that a survey carried out by SNP MSP Gillian Martin found only one in 10 people who work in the sector feel they have enough opportunities to switch to renewables.

Workers claimed renewable energy firms “discriminated” against applicants with a background in the offshore sector, for fear of them leaving to return to oil and gas for a higher wage.

Offshore workers with a CHC Scotia helicopter at Aberdeen heliport (Photo: Big Partnership)

We have been greedy now for too long. We created this mess and we need to fix it.

We have lived in a bubble, becoming used to everything being more expensive. By and large, the city coped because the money was here.

Large, West End homes were filled with people who could afford the hefty council tax bill. Local firms were paying well over the odds to the Scottish Government in business rates, and offshore workers were being paid massively inflated wages and afforded the luxury of weeks at home to spend it.

But who stopped to think about what would happen when it started to dwindle and whether any of this cash should be injected back into the city?

We need to plan ahead

Look at Norway. They created a sovereign wealth fund to invest in non-oil-related assets for the future benefit of their country, yet no one thought to do the same here.

Docked ships in Stavanger harbour, Norway (Photo: Blair Stewart)

The oil and gas majors have no real ties to Aberdeen, and we have already witnessed them slowly exiting. If there is not a renewed and accelerated focus on the city and energy transition, what is going to fill the void when they’ve all gone?

If you were a first-time visitor to Aberdeen with no real knowledge of our history, would you walk down our high street and believe we, for years, were one of the wealthiest cities in the UK?

We spent it when we had it and gave no real thought to future investment.

The industry’s recent rallying should be seen as a reprieve, not a solution and we should use the current spike in activity to prepare for our future. Not just the next 50 years, but the next 50 and more after that.

Rebecca Buchan is City and Shire Team Leader for The Press & Journal and Evening Express

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