Grangemouth, the co-chair of the Just Transition Commission has said, “is a litmus test for whether a just transition can be planned for and realised at a scale that really matters to people.”

But, with PetroIneos’ announcement last week that it was set to close the crude oil refinery as early as spring 2025, that litmus, he said, was “starting to turn red”.

Environmental groups, trades unions and academics, have joined a chorus of voices saying that what's happening at Grangemouth is of grave concern. 

GMB Scotland, which represents contractors at Grangemouth and has members across the energy sector, said the term “just transition” has become meaningless and should be retired.

Meanwhile, Rosie Hampton, Just Transition Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, described the Grangemouth situation as a “damning indictment” on the progress of just transition in Scotland.

She said: “It’s very much been left up to the whims of private companies with very little steer or concrete planning from Scottish government. Neither PetroIneos nor Scottish Government have really fully engaged with workers at the heart of these high carbon industries.”

It was, she said, “a deeply distressing situation” for the hundreds of workers that are potentially going to lose their jobs. “What is worse about it is that it’s not surprising – this is in the playbook of private companies and in particular Ineos and their history of treatment of workers in that plant in particular.”

Just transition: More than a phrase?

One of the chief complaints is that “just transition has become a hollow catchphrase. Louse Gilmour, GMB Scotland secretary, described Just Transition as “a platitude.... used by politicians to suggest progress is being made despite all evidence to the contrary”.

“There is no transition, just or otherwise, because, so far, our highly-skilled and hugely experienced oil and gas workers have transitioned nowhere but abroad.

“The UK and Scottish governments have wish lists where industrial strategies should be and we have heard enough airy promises of green jobs tomorrow while we lose skilled jobs today.”

The Herald: Night-time view of Grangemouth chemical plant on October 23, 2013Night-time view of Grangemouth chemical plant on October 23, 2013

Who is to blame?

Some have framed this as an SNP/Green government failure. But energy is largely a reserved power, and the UK Government is also culpable.

In a tweet this week, Dr Gibbs observed the big story around Grangemouth is much more one of “corporate balance sheets than government agendas”.

He also pointed out that the closure announcement had been reported almost exclusively as a Scottish story when, in fact it is a British story.

“It’s about,” he said, “oil that is taken out of the UK Continental shelf which has up until now been refined in Grangemouth in the future being exported along with almost all the rest of the oil that is taken out of the North Sea and it’s about the British economy becoming increasingly dependent on imported refined products.”

Many of the key decisions, he noted, are being made at a UK level. "It’s the UK government that licenses future oilfields, most energy policy is a UK decision still and we still have a Great British electricity sector. Yet it’s oddly absent from a lot of UK discussion."

“It’s worth thinking," said Gibbs, "what just transition means. Just transition in Scotland is framed as primarily avoiding what happened in coal and steel communities in the 1980s and 1990s -  not doing what Margaret Thatcher’s government did to the coal and steel-making industries. It’s about not having mass unemployment in areas that depend on oil and gas and it’s about preserving and using skilled work forces to develop green productive economic activity instead of that.

"What we are seeing in Grangemouth is not a just transition. It’s another unjust transition, quite recognisable from the experience of factory closures in the 1980s and 1990s.”

But, he said, a transition to green energy is necessary. “We want to be moving towards renewable sources. And we need a transition that is well-organised and which promises jobs within the areas that are being impacted."

“I have real sympathy,” he added, “with workers and unions who are right now decrying the Just Transition and trying to hang on to fossil fuel jobs, because I don’t think they’ve been given any alternatives here. They've lived through decades now of disappointment when it comes to government promises in relation to industry.”

READ MORE: SNP ministers criticised for delayed Grangemouth just transition plan

READ MORE: Grangemouth: Jobs at risk as Sir Jim Ratcliffe-backed refinery to shut


Private versus public

One of Friends of the Earth Scotland's biggest criticisms of the government approach, said Rosie Hampton, is that it has left it "to private companies and not pursued forms of energy ownership that lie in the public interest – for instance public ownership.”

Government, she added, must take a much “stronger” hand. “We need to know what levers there are in place to build up that security network and safety net for these workers while they transition out of these high carbon industries. We don’t want the Scottish government to be jumping into save the company but not doing anything to ease the transition of workers.”

But where are the green jobs?

For a Just Transition to work, of course, there have to be green jobs for fossil fuel workers to move to, which would make good use of their skills – and there are still too few of these. There are around 79,000 jobs in offshore oil and gas currently, but the number of jobs in renewables manufacturing in Scotland remains very low at 34,000 overall across the whole of the UK. 

Academics at Robert Gordon University have calculated that the difference between a good and a bad shift from fossil fuels to renewables in Scotland is 50,000. With a good transition, there could be an extra 20,000 jobs - a bad one and we're looking at 30,000 less.

Among the missed opportunities to ensure that expansion of the renewables sector brings more jobs to Scotland, said Dr Gibbs, have been the ScotWind leasing rounds. “I feel,” he said, “that if you’re going to option off prime real estate in terms of very profitable activities in offshore wind generation that should come with conditions. There should be guarantees of employment and manufacturing work in Scotland coming off the back of that.”

This is, Dr Gibbs said, possible.  “There are mechanisms known as local content agreements for achieving that. In the early days of the old North Sea industry, I’ve found through my research, there were attempts to do that. The UK government had an office based in Glasgow called the Offshore Supplies Office and it ensured that large portions of offshore work - the construction of rigs for instance - were given to yards in the UK.”  

There are also many other projects that might provide such work which have stalled or delayed. Stuart Haszeldine, professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Edinburgh, listed some of these: “The connection to CO2 removal in the Acorn project has been delayed by Westminster slow allocations of support. The big Project Union of decarbonising methane gas into hydrogen at St Fergus is still awaiting UK government decisions on go-ahead or not.

"And in December 2022 the Scottish government has been seriously criticised by the Committee on Climate Change for slow progress in practical implementation of green ambitions.” 

The Herald: Grangemouth oil refinery. Image: Jane BarlowGrangemouth oil refinery. Image: Jane Barlow (Image: free)

What about the pathways for workers?

A further issue is the creation of pathways that would bring workers to those green jobs. Friends of the Earth Scotland and Platform produced the Our Power Report, in which they interviewed offshore workers.

They discovered a real struggle to find routes. Rosie Hampton said: “Some of the workers currently work some gigs in offshore oil and gas and do some shifts in renewables as well. They’ve seen how easy or how difficult it is to transition between those jobs. A lot of money, time and resource needs to be put into creating those pathways and having workers and their experiences at the centre of doing that planning.”

Some policies, too, that might have enabled workers to shift, have yet to be delivered – for instance, the Offshore Training Passport to help workers move between offshore wind and offshore fossil fuels.

Ms Hampton said: “There has already been stalling and delaying of the offshore training passport, which the Scottish government have allocated £5million of public money from the Just Transition fund towards. But we’re stuck with a stalemate which has been created by private companies deciding whether or not they’ll sign up to it or they’ll endorse it.”

The litmus test?

Professor Dave Reay, co-chair of the Just Transition Commission, which provides independent scrutiny and advice to the Scottish Government, said Grangemouth had been recognised as "a key area for the transition to net zero for all of Scotland".

“For me, it is a litmus test. The announcement this week is deeply concerning as it appears to run completely counter to the need for early and meaningful engagement with workers, the local community, and key stakeholders like government, in co-designing and delivering sustainable transformation - that Grangemouth litmus paper is already starting to turn red."

He added: “Many of the major industrial transitions in our past, such as for coal and steel, have been deeply unjust. So many communities across Scotland still bare the scars from those, but we have at least recognised such mistakes cannot be repeated if we are to have any chance of achieving net zero and avoiding the worst impact of climate change. Scotland is rightly regarded around the world as a leading light in terms of its leadership on Just Transition approaches and policy, but that's worth nought if it does not translate into practice. '