Will Scotland’s politicians support the Grangemouth community and workforce in their campaign to save Scotland's only oil refinery?

As well as being home to more than 450 workers, the Grangemouth refinery is home to 100 years of history. One of the first crude oil refineries in the UK, its opening in 1924 marked the beginning of a major energy transition away from coal towards petroleum. As the refinery and the petrochemical industry expanded post-World War Two, the town expanded. Rows and rows of semi-detached homes were built by (then publicly owned) BP to house workers at subsidised rents.

But the significance of Grangemouth flows out from the surrounding bricks to the wider Scottish economy and politics. It was the Grangemouth refinery where the first drop of North Sea oil was piped ashore in the 1970s. The oil revenues that poured into the Treasury in the 1970s and 1980s were used by Margaret Thatcher to fund her seismic and disastrous transformation of the UK economy. The rise of the SNP, and its slogan It’s Scotland Oil could not have happened without Grangemouth. Of course, the Labour party traditionally benefited from the votes of organised workers like those at Grangemouth.

With the refinery now at risk, will these parties return the favour and support the workers at Grangemouth in their time of need?

Taken at their word, politicians across parties seem united in their opposition to the refinery closure planned by PetroIneos (a joint venture between Manchester United owner and billionaire, Jim Ratcliffe, and the Chinese state-owned company PetroChina).

That isn’t surprising given the importance of the Grangemouth refinery to Scotland’s economy and the fact that the most recent accounts show that the refinery made a profit of £107million in 2022. Grangemouth is the primary supplier of aviation fuel for Scotland’s main airports, and a major supplier of petrol and diesel ground fuels across the central belt. It also provides power to the Forties oil pipeline, which brings oil and gas ashore from the North Sea.

But simply wishing something into being doesn’t make it happen. Politicians owe the workforce and community more than platitudes – they owe them practical support and solutions. Actions not words are what matters.

That is why the Keep Grangemouth Working campaign has been launched. A worker-led campaign backed by Unite the Union, it has three simple demands.

EXTEND – the lifetime of the refinery to secure highly skilled jobs and Scotland's energy security.

INVEST – in new technology at Grangemouth to create new jobs and deliver energy diversification.

TRANSITION – support cleaner and greener energy projects which can make Grangemouth and Scotland leaders in renewable energy.

These demands balance the need to protect jobs in the here and now with the need to tackle climate change, and recognises the readiness of workers to lead the transition of our economy away from oil and gas.

While the refinery is home to 450 workers, the wider complex hosts 2000 jobs, with a further 7,000 in the supply chain. Scotland has lost 25,000 manufacturing jobs in recent years and it can’t afford to lose more. Extending the lifetime of the refinery is crucial if we are not to see a devastating impact on both the local area and Scotland’s wider manufacturing base.

Extending the lifetime of the refinery is also crucial for energy security. PetroIneos propose replacing the refinery with an export-import terminal. Rather than being able to refine our own oil, we’d be dependent on importing refined products. As the last few years have shown, the world is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Relying on imports leaves us at risk of further pandemics, wars and price hikes. It represents the de-development of the Scottish economy and makes no sense from an economic, social or climate perspective.

The Grangemouth workforce are not naïve – they recognise that as the wider economy moves away from oil, so too will Grangemouth. They are calling for investment in areas such as hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and biorefining, to ensure that Scotland is still able to produce the goods people need without the carbon emissions associated with them. They want their skills to be harnessed in the transition to net zero, not simply thrown on the scrapheap.

Grangemouth workers could be the green workers of the future, but they are being let down by multinational corporations and by Governments – at all levels – who have not put the plans in place to transition our economy away from oil and gas in a way which protects and creates jobs, enhances democratic control over our economy and reduces economic inequality.

Frankly, it is not acceptable for Government to say, as the Scottish and UK Government have “This is a commercial decision”. Leaving these decisions to the market, completely uncontrolled, is the opposite of a Just Transition. It is reminiscent of the deindustrialisation in Scotland’s coal and steel communities. We cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes in oil and gas.

Questions need to be asked about whether the Scottish and UK Government policies on Freeports, one of which covers the Grangemouth area, makes it more attractive to import and export goods than to invest in domestic processing. By providing tax breaks for importing and exporting goods, there is a real risk that our politicians are not only failing to support a Just Transition, but they are actively undermining it.

Questions also need to be asked of the UK Government decision to give Jim Ratcliffe a £600m loan guarantee to build the biggest petrochemical plant in Europe in 30 years, in Belgium. Surely the priority of the UK Government should be to maintain employment in the UK, not support a company expand overseas, while it threatens jobs at home?

Thankfully, the Keep Grangemouth Working campaign shows that workers and communities are willing to take the lead where politicians do not. It is time that our politicians follow – through deeds, not words. After all, they owe the people of Grangemouth a hundred years of gratitude

Roz Foyer is general secretary of the STUC