Smoke still rises from the chimney stacks. There is a plume that still emerges. But for how long?

The news yesterday of the intention of Petroineos to close the Grangemouth Refinery within two years at the potential cost of hundreds of direct jobs and many more in the wider supply chain may well become Scotland’s defining just transition moment. It could also spill into the wider UK political discourse particularly in the context of a UK General Election.

The importance of Grangemouth to highly skilled and well-paid jobs to the area is not disputed. All in, Grangemouth sustains 2000 jobs, with a further 7,000 in the supply chain. Whilst not all these jobs are reliant on the operation of the refinery itself, the continual erosion of these well-paid jobs will have a devastating impact on the local area and a significant impact on Scotland’s economy overall.

The company has stressed that a final decision has not been made.

This notwithstanding, the mood music from the company is bleak. It cites significant annual losses, a diminishing domestic market for its products and competition from bigger, more modern and no doubt lower wage refineries in the Far and Middle East and Africa.

Ineos insists that other operations at Grangemouth – powering the Forties pipeline and the petrochemical plant – are not under threat. They also believe future hydrogen and CCS projects will continue.

But you can forgive the workers for feeling like there is a cloud hanging over them.

READ MORE: SNP hopes to 'extend the potential life' of Grangemouth oil refinery

Whilst they have been given advanced notice of the potential job losses to the worker’s union Unite, there has been no engagement with the union or indeed the Scottish Government in advance of the announcement.

People elsewhere in Scotland will be looking on and wondering how we reached this point today. The home of the industrial revolution, home to the oil capital of Europe, and the site of much-vaunted potential offshore wind generation.

Yet increasingly, watching the processing and manufacturing for major industries, and the opportunity for quality and well-paid work that brings, taking place offshore with the products imported. We are not gaining new industries and wealth for people in Scotland, but actively seeing existing manufacturing sites like Grangemouth threatening closure.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is what the current UK Government wants. To great fanfare, it introduced its freeport strategy which was reflected here in the joint Scottish and UK Government Greeports initiative. We have always been sceptical.

The Herald: Grangemouth RefineryGrangemouth Refinery (Image: free)

Freeports internationally have been successful in providing tax breaks for big companies, providing money laundering opportunities for international criminals and displacing jobs within countries rather than creating new ones. Freeports, one of which covers the Grangemouth area, actively makes it more attractive to deal only with the import and export of goods, than to invest in domestic processing.

In recent months, political parties have lined up to underline the national interest in energy security, in response to the war in Ukraine and the current crisis in the Middle East, but they have done little to meaningfully address our lack of security. Indeed, the approach to managing our economy, seen clearly through the introduction of freeports, has done nothing but left us further exposed to global crises and the decisions of multinational companies.

The Grangemouth refinery currently supplies 70% of Scottish fuel forecourts, almost all its aviation fuel as well as valuable industrial feedstocks. The site is currently a major source of emissions, but the proposal to close the refinery will not reduce global emissions, it will simply see them taking place elsewhere.

What is being overlooked is the potential role it could play in tackling climate emissions. The Grangemouth site, and particularly the skills and experience of these workers, is essential for decarbonising our industrial processes through hydrogen, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and biorefining. A just transition will never be handed down from executives or governments. However, workers like those at Grangemouth need to be supported in their efforts. Selling off natural resources, deregulating swathes of the country for freeports, and providing investment without retaining any control undermine any effort to realise a just transition to a net zero economy.

What we need instead is what workers at the site have been calling for over a number of years. Investment in the plant and solid commitments to harness and develop the existing skills of workers in the transition and proactive policies to reskill and retrain workers where required.

READ MORE: Grangemouth union battle - and how Ratcliffe won last time round

Scotland’s Just Transition Commission has been quick to respond to the news saying that yesterday’s announcement regarding the future of the refinery at Grangemouth runs directly counter to a just transition to a low carbon economy in Scotland. It states its deep concern that we will see a repeat of previous unmanaged industrial transitions in coal and steel and is alarmed that there appears to have been minimal engagement with workers, the community or government ministers.

Therefore, inevitably, as Unite the Union seeks to engage with the company and government to leave no stone unturned in the quest to save jobs, the pressure for direct government intervention at both Scottish and UK levels will gather pace. We need a commitment to economic democracy and state ownership where possible. It is simply not healthy for our economy to be reliant on Jim Ratcliffe and PetroChina.

Despite the natural antipathy from the Tories towards state ownership, the case can be made, both to the SNP Government here and any future UK Labour Government, that we need an industrial strategy in which elected governments have both a direct and strategic role. At Grangemouth that would include considering public stakes in the development of the plant.

To go back to where I started, smoke will still rise. As will the workers. While there are members on the ground, with a union card in their hand, they’ll have a stake in how the plant will function. But, simply put, they cannot do it alone. If the Scottish and UK Government’s are serious about a just transition – and it’s debatable whether one of them is – now is the time to show it. There can be no room for failure.

The fires are still burning. From the ashes, we need to see nothing less than complete justice for the community and the workers of Grangemouth.

Roz Foyer is the STUC's General Secretary