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Is ‘just transition’ an empty slogan? Climate lawyer says north-east shortchanged by government

Tessa Khan’s group, Uplift, is challenging the Rosebank field off Shetland and argues politicians are not preparing for the future.

Offshore workers.
Offshore workers were told there will be a 'just transition' from fossil fuel. Image: Shutterstock.

A campaigning lawyer challenging the push for more oil extraction says the north-east is being shortchanged with empty slogans on the future of crucial energy jobs.

Tessa Khan’s group, Uplift, says political promises of jobs and security beyond the fossil fuel era – dubbed the “just transition” – are not being backed by action.

“Just Transition is an empty slogan,” she told the P&J.

“The real challenge for the Scottish and UK governments is that oil gas is in long-term decline.

“The transition is going to happen, but it is not ‘just’.”

Tessa Khan, of Uplift.
Tessa Khan, of Uplift. Image: Uplift

Rosebank legal challenge

Ms Khan, an experienced climate lawyer, was reflecting on the tension in Britain’s energy policies as she waits for two key legal decisions.

The first, known as the Finch case, concerns whether a project in Surrey should go ahead.

Once that’s dealt with, environmentalists are braced for a decision in the Court of Session in Scotland on Rosebank, an oil field near Shetland.

The decision to explore there caused anger among those who argue the focus should be on moving away from fossil fuels.

They fear it only pushes the big challenge down the to-do list.

Ms Khan thinks the argument against Rosebank is strong.

Campaigners take part in a "stop Rosebank" protest in Edinburgh, after the controversial Equinor Rosebank North Sea oilfield was given the go-ahead.
Campaigners take part in a “stop Rosebank” protest in Edinburgh. Image: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

She claims four key points were missing: the impact of burning the fuel extracted, the emissions from extraction, the impact on marine environment and lack of clarity on published reasons for going ahead.

Its backers say the development will create hundreds of new jobs and lead to £6 billion being spent in the North Sea supply chain anchored in Aberdeen.

‘Missing in action’

While Uplift waits for courts to decide, Ms Khan wants more from the politicians in charge.

“Governments have been missing on action,” she says.

Shareholders and debts are serviced by “eye watering” profits but investment in communities is not high.

Meanwhile, the argument about small policy differences in setting a windfall tax on profits is a “distraction” from the central challenge, she claims.

“The UK has impressive climate policies but as a big fossil fuel producer it doesn’t match up,” she adds.

“It’s shocking that jobs in the promised just transition haven’t materialised. We’ve got to get this right.”

Windfall tax row

Rishi Sunak extended the windfall tax, and left Scottish Tories with a headache. Image: PA.

Political leaders know the north-east is waiting for answers as they eye the upcoming general election, which will be held at some point this year.

Labour annoyed business leaders in the city by backing windfall taxes.

But then the Conservatives – who were happy to join the criticism – extended it anyway.

On the SNP, Ms Khan wants more clarity.

“The presumption against new oil was clear under Nicola Sturgeon,” she said.

“It’s not so clear anymore.”

The UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero says the country will still need some oil and gas, even at “net zero” emissions in 2050.

“We expect to attract a further £100 billion of low carbon investment by 2030, supporting new British industries in the UK, including Scotland, supporting up to £480,000 green jobs in 2030,” the department said.

A Scottish Government spokesman said the industry makes a significant contribution to the economy.

“The First Minister has been clear that any further extraction and use of fossil fuels must be consistent with Scotland’s climate obligations,” the spokesman added.

“The Scottish Government’s focus is on meeting the country’s energy security needs, reducing emissions and delivering affordable energy supplies, whilst ensuring a just transition for the oil and gas workforce to a net-zero future as North Sea resources decline.”

Oil and gas licensing is controlled by the UK Government.