IT IS one of the most vital parts of Scotland’s economy and is striving to become more climate-friendly.

But the country’s oil and gas sector is facing a crisis, set to deepen in the years ahead due to the shrinking number of young people interested in studying topics relevant to the industry.

Experts believe the removal of Higher geology from the Scottish curriculum, and the “Thunberg effect”, has turned people away from geosciences, in particular subjects which lead to careers in oil and gas or fossil fuels. 

Ironically, geology as a field is essential for tackling the climate change issue so many young people are passionate about, with Scotland considered one of the birthplaces of the subject, dating back to the 1700s. 

In the past five years, applications to study geosciences at Scottish universities have fallen and, in 2016, Higher geology was extinguished from the curriculum.

The decline is leading to a widening skills gap between those who are ready for retirement and are highly skilled, and younger professionals who have adequate knowledge to guide the oil and gas sector into climate-friendly territory and help Scotland reach its net zero-carbon emissions goals by 2050. 

Professor John Underhill of Heriot-Watt University and a member of the Scottish science Advisory Council, which advises the Scottish Government. 

He is also the academic director of the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas.

Professor Underhill said the situation is of great concern, particularly to Scotland’s economy and its carbon-neutral climate goals. He explained: “Geology, geophysics and allied subjects are normally thought to be the pathway into a career in geology and quite a substantial subset of that would go into industry including oil and gas.

“Geoscience plays into a much larger, very relevant area too in terms of low-carbon energy transition, and the challenge of meeting the very ambitious net zero emissions targets that are there.

“Unfortunately for some people, geology is seen as a sort of old-fashioned subject, and very closely associated with extractive or fossil fuel industries in terms of employment.

“That has definitely created a negative perception, as opposed to thinking about it in terms of understanding the landscape, the skill sets one needs to describe a subsurface, and then to use those skills to best effect for the energy transition plans and to help tackle climate change.”

Since 2014, the number of people studying geosciences in the UK has fallen by 45%, and those doing so at Scottish universities has also declined.

The number of Scots studying the subject has also likely fallen, according to Underhill, due to the removal of Higher geology from the Scottish curriculum in 2016.

He explained: “Back in 2002 there were 90 students at school doing Higher geology. If we fast-forward to about 2013 there were 60, then 50 in 2014, 40 in 2015, and then Higher geology stopped in 2016. It’s not part of the national curriculum anymore here in Scotland.  

“There are the consequences of that, quite apart from the negative perception around some geosciences being linked to fossil fuels, extraction. The knock-on effect is that in 2013, we had 245 students come to do geoscience in Scotland.
“That declined to160 in 2018.” 

The academic also cited figures relating to one leading university, where just 50 UK students had applied to study masters degrees in petroleum geosciences in 2018, compared to around 200 UK students four years earlier.

He explained: “Some of these courses really need to be repurposed to make themselves relevant to the particular challenge of climate change and net zero emissions.  

“If we were to able to do so, but also promote the message across schools and undergraduate degrees as well, we’ll see more students come through to do those topics.

“I think it’s essential to teach younger people that the skill set that one learns in doing geoscience and understanding the subsurface is absolutely essential if we’re going to store carbon safely, or hydrogen, do geothermal, place windfarms in the right place in the North Sea ... It all comes into that mix.   

“The same skills and expertise are needed, and it needs to be repurposed towards low carbon. That will be the only way I think we can redress what seems to be an exponential decline in numbers. We have to show that the subject is relevant, and in fact essential.

“If you’re going to make something so important to the Scottish economy, in terms of the energy transition, to have that on the curriculum is really important.

“Unless you come from the northeast, for example Aberdeen, and have more of a knowledge of the subject, then you might not go in that direction  anyway. But even then you may not be able to do so because there’s no Higher in geology in Scotland. Does that mean that they have to do A-levels elsewhere?” 

Along with the falling in interest in geology in general, the rise in climate change awareness and activism has also contributed further to the malaise for the subject.

In 2018, Greta Thunberg famously began protesting outside the Swedish parliament – a move which snowballed into the fight against climate change familiar across the globe.

The issue has become particularly relevant for school-age children who have joined protests on school days and taken part in marches all over the country.

While the rise in awareness of climate change has been welcomed, the misconceptions about how oil and gas fit into a climate-friendly future have done little to help the sector. 

Underhill explained: “We’ve got to go out there, be proactive and explain what the career pathway is, and how relevant it is to those young folk today who are concerned, and rightly so, about the environment and climate change.

“We should perhaps also produce more of an educational program so that folk understand where energy comes from, and some of the challenges that are ahead.

“The fact that we were self-sufficient in oil and gas, but that has declined and we’re reliant on one gas field in Norway, on Russian imports etc.”

According to a Committee on Climate Change report on Scottish oil and gas in 2016, there could still be a role for the sector by 2035 and beyond. But with fewer people available to work in it and conduct new exploration activity, Scotland would either fail to meet its climate targets or the industry would become extinct entirely.