SFU labour studies seminar navigates oil and gas

Peder Østring explains the challenges and possibilities of creating a more sustainable world

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a white and red oil rig on the ocean
PHOTO: Jan-Rune Smenes Reite / Pexels

By: Hannah Fraser, News Writer

On May 8, SFU held a labour studies seminar, “Shutting Down and Cleaning Up: The Labor Regimes of Oil and Gas Decommissioning.” Peder Østring from the University of Oslo in Norway led the discussion to explain challenges and possibilities “for a just transition” in oil and gas decommissioning, and what this means for the oil and gas workforce. The Peak attended the event for more information.

Oil and gas decommissioning is the “final stage of any oil or gas project and poses significant technical, economic, social and environmental risks.” Decommissioning is involved in the process of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Responsible decommissioning is done so that the producing area is “left in a safe and environmentally acceptable condition.”

In the seminar, Østring explained there has been an “immense development in the last five decades of oceanic built environments,” like pipelines producing oil and gas in the North Sea. He asked what we must do to handle the “urbanization process of the ocean” to keep the climate crisis within the carbon target of two degrees celsius in accordance with the 2015 Paris Agreement. He added, “Norway and Canada have a lot in common as oil-producing states.”

“The process of cleaning up and shutting down is in no way unique to the North Sea,” he continued. $120 million was set aside in subsidies” to clean up abandoned oil wells in 2020 in BC.

“Shutting down this industry will lead to a society-wide calamity,” Østring said. “Norway was already a welfare state before finding oil in 1969.” This means, similar to Canada, there were more publicly-owned jobs before the monopolization of privatized oil and gas companies. With over 70,000 Norweigians currently employed in the oil and gas sector, he noted turning away from this aspect of the economy isn’t easy. 

 “Building [a] future society in a carbon-constrained world would have to entail making use of that physical infrastructure already inherited from fossil capital.”  Peder Østring, climate policy scholar

Østring discussed a high overlap in skills needed to work in the oil and gas industry, and the renewable energy industry, suggesting the transition of workers from one industry to another could be easy. “The scaling up of decommissioning would at least absorb some people working with the expansion of the oil and gas industry,” as the plugging and abandonment of oil rigs as part of decommissioning also provides jobs, he said.

Østring pointed out that the labour unions in Norway “generally are favourable to expanding the fossil fuel industry.” The country’s “oil tax break” of 2020 also created “huge incentives to start up new oil and gas projects,” posing more challenges for a shift away from these labour systems. While Canada plans to enact a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, advocates worry these targets are too vague in nature and don’t convey the specific steps necessary to achieve net-zero emissions

However, Østring said “the largest part of an oil platform is made of steel, but also contains a substantial amount of aluminum [and] copper,” which are materials that are “needed for the construction of wind turbines.” Research grappling with cutting emissions while “constructing a whole new landscape producing renewable energy” suggests that “building [a] future society in a carbon-constrained world would have to entail making use of that physical infrastructure already inherited from fossil capital.” 

But, “if the loss of unrestrained logic of capitalist value gets to dominate, the most likely outcome is that disused structures in the ocean” are shipped to the Global South such as areas of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Once there, ships and machinery can be cheaply dismantled for scrap metal. However, this practice results in “both pollution and precarious labour conditions,” but “will secure the highest profits,” Østring explained.

Østring expressed how a local oil and gas union he visited during his PhD work felt positive about moving towards decommissioning, yet they still supported “continued national investments in oil and gas projects.” According to CBC News, union representatives for Unifor, a Canadian public sector union, “don’t object” to Canada’s transitions away from fossil fuels, but hope this shift doesn’t “leave workers behind.

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