This is a piece I wrote for The Scotsman a couple of months back, on what Aberdeen and north-east Scotland can learn from the decline of coal and steel manufacturing in the south of Hokkaido. Given recent political events and the perceived role of post-industrial areas in swelling political trends, I thought this was worth re-airing. The US election result ought to be a real shot in the arm for NE Scotland as to the kind of trends we want to avoid as oil and gas (and associated jobs) decline.
“Start planning now. That’s the most important advice I can give.” So a senior official from Yubari City in Japan told me. Many desks in his office sat empty, yellowed computers and piles of faded documents stacked where people used to work. The fluorescent tubes had been pulled out of half the overhead lights to save electricity.
What had I asked to provoke such a response? If I start the story, you’ll soon twig. Yubari is an administrative district in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Until about 1990, it was the de facto coal mining capital of the country. People came from all over to work in the mines, attracted by high wages and stable work. Then the coal ran out. Desperate to fill the economic void, city officials instigated a film festival (successful), skiing and tourism (moderately successful) and a theme park (utterly disastrous). These interventions were not able to stop the rot, and in 2008 Yubari became the first Japanese municipality to file for bankruptcy. Its population is now one tenth of what it was at the coal mining peak, and the legacy of flashy town halls, schools and hospitals left behind by the coal industry – for which the city authority has had to assume liability – continues to drain town resources.
Substitute coal for oil, and Hokkaido for Scotland, and the reason for my interest in Yubari becomes clear. I wanted to find out what one town which has already experienced the end of fossil fuel industries could teach my current home – Aberdeen. For the past five years I’ve been researching what the future of North Sea energy might look like as our oil and gas fields mature. My goal hasn’t been to establish how many billion barrels of oil are left or how many millions of pounds of revenue we might drag out, but rather how the pathway the North Sea follows from now on in affects daily living for the citizens of Aberdeen and its surroundings. And what I learned from Yubari was that if north-east Scotland wants to avoid storing up trouble, it needs to start acting now.
At the risk of being labeled reactionary, the recent oil price downturn has focused my mind. There have been previous lows from which the industry has recovered, and I know prices are better than they were six months ago. But this short-term view misses the point. It might not be this year or even this decade, but at some point North Sea oil and gas operations will cease to be viable. And when that time comes, north-east Scotland will need something to replace it. The current downturn is as good a point of departure as any for a discussion on what this future might look like.
I am not advocating shutting down all the rigs overnight, nor do I seek to trivialise the jobs that have been lost. Our society will need oil and gas for a while yet. Until renewable technologies can meet our energy needs it would be sensible to make the most efficient use of fields already in operation – like those in the North Sea – rather than looking elsewhere. Let’s not forget the UK has strict climate change targets too, which the North Sea and all the offshore engineering knowledge Aberdeen has accumulated over the last fifty years can help to meet. Offshore wind, wave energy and carbon dioxide capture and storage could all play a part in a managed transition for the North Sea, squaring our climate obligations with building a more sustainable economic base for the north-east and beyond. But to achieve this we need coherent and stable policy across all levels, and forward planning to ensure Aberdeen is able to grasp the opportunities that come its way,
I will resist the obvious comparison between Aberdeen and Detroit. The cultures, industries and politics are different. Even Yubari is a bit of a stretch. But with so many examples globally of what can happen when an industry on which a city depends has run its course, I find it concerning and frustrating that all the talk is about prolonging North Sea production seemingly into infinity. This is understandable with so many jobs on the line, but surely there has to be room to talk about what happens when Scotland has taken oil and gas as far as it can? As we academics say, it’s a conversation that needs to be had.