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Meet the oil and gas worker hoping for a just transition

We are not going to become the coal miners of net zero, says Cliff Bowen.

By Samir Jeraj

Keir Starmer has attracted the ire of unions over Labour’s plan to stop issuing new North Sea oil and gas licences. At the GMB annual conference today the Labour leader will try to reassure workers in the sector by pledging to make “good, union jobs” the centre of the party’s energy policy.

An estimated 30,000 people work directly in the industry, and four times that number indirectly – for example in the supply chain. Banning new licences – which the International Energy Agency has said is critical to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions – could mean the end of these workers’ livelihoods without a plan to help them transition to new jobs.

Cliff Bowen, who has worked for 30 years in oil and gas at Grangemouth, on the Firth of Forth, tells Spotlight: “We recognise the need to decarbonise, no one has to explain this to us within our sector, but we need it to be done in a just way.”

Bowen started off as a technician and now has responsibility for workers on the Forties Pipeline System, one of the most critical pieces of oil and gas infrastructure in the UK. Throughout his career, Bowen has also been involved in the trade union movement, from safety rep to convener. He sits on the executive council of Unite, representing oil and gas, chemical, pharmaceutical, textile and glass workers.

Bowen says there is a “very wide array” of issues raised by the 50,000 or so union members he represents, but the move towards net zero will affect them more than anything else. As part of his union role, Bowen works with the Scottish and UK governments and with unions in Europe and America that are involved in the net-zero transition. He is frustrated by the lack of progress on new technologies that he sees as critical to addressing climate change, such as green hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS), and preparation for the new jobs that they could create.

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“I speak to my son’s teacher and I say, ‘What subjects should he be studying to work in these new green jobs?’, and they can’t tell you. We are churning out working-class kids across the UK who aren’t being guided towards studying for these new roles – it’s incredibly frustrating. If we are serious about global warming, and we are serious about a just transition, where is the investment from government in the likes of hydrogen infrastructure?”

Bowen wants the next generation to have an inhabitable planet and the chance of well-paid manufacturing jobs that provide 30-year careers for working-class people, supporting families and sustaining communities. That’s why a just transition is so important, he says. Bowen has respect for environmental protesters raising awareness and keeping the pressure up. However, he points out that the move to clean energy will be driven by industries, the government and unions working together.

“We are green workers of the future,” he says. “That’s how we see ourselves, because we are going to transition these heavy carbon-intense industries to these new clean fuels that will ultimately drive down emissions – and we have already started.”

The main block, in his opinion, is the government. “They need to be serious about investment,” he says. That is investment in technologies, infrastructure and in training. Without this he fears the UK could fall behind. “We meet regularly with people from across Europe and America to discuss these issues, and the Germans are so far in front. It is incredible.”

Bowen and Unite have worked with the Labour Party on what types of education, technology and infrastructure policies are needed to support a just transition. The lack of progress with the current government hasn’t been helped by the high turnover of ministers and policies in the past year.

“We can’t just throw all these workers and their communities on the scrap heap,” Bowen says. “On my watch, we are not going to become the coal miners of the movement towards net zero.”

[See also: Will Keir Starmer’s green energy plan threaten Labour’s Scottish recovery?]

This article is part of a series exploring the front line of the net zero transition. Read more here

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