openDemocracyUK: Opinion

We stopped Cambo. Here’s how to beat Big Oil

A few months ago, we didn’t think we could stop the development of a new North Sea oil field. Now, it looks like we have

Kate Whitaker
15 December 2021, 9.26am
Activists from Friends of the Earth call for an end to all new North Sea oil and gas projects, starting with the Cambo oil field. November 2021
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

On Thursday 2 December at 6:30pm, my group chats exploded. Messages, memes, and tweets flooded my phone – and the phones of many others across the country and the world. ‘Stop Cambo’ activists were seeing the news – Shell had pulled out of the controversial Cambo oil field. I went for a pint with a friend and we mostly sat wide-eyed trying to work out what the hell was going on. Someone even phoned the Shell media line to make sure it wasn’t a Yes Men stunt.

It wasn’t. On Friday, the company behind Cambo, Siccar Point, quietly announced the project was on hold.

A test for a changed movement

In summer 2021, this moment felt a very, very long way away. There had been a major shift in the climate movement in the UK over the past two years, with the pandemic causing huge amounts of personal and political turmoil, and the danger of in-person gatherings shutting down our usual ways of building for change. On top of that came the necessary but demoralising delay to the UN Climate Summit, COP26, in November 2020. After the ramping up of action in 2019, by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and the global school climate strikes, this loss of momentum felt especially jarring.

But at the same time, there was another, more encouraging shift in how the Scottish and wider UK climate movement was engaging with a big topic that had been surprisingly low down the list of targets and priorities for a long time: North Sea oil and gas.

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There are many reasons why this hadn’t previously been at the forefront of the climate movement’s demands. It felt too big to tackle and too hard to shift public opinion on. But over the past few years, many have been making the point that action on climate is impossible without taking on the oil industry. In January 2020, for example, three people from Extinction Rebellion Scotland scaled a Shell rig in Dundee that was destined for the North Sea, as part of a week of action against oil and gas called the ‘Rig Rebellion’.

The climate movement has, in recent years, also begun to seriously engage with the concept of a ‘Just Transition’. This idea, developed by American workers in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union from the 1970s, is a demand for new jobs that are not harmful to the environment. The choice must never be between having a job in oil and gas, which would take us beyond safe climate limits, or having no job at all. In tackling the climate crisis, there is an opportunity to ensure a green economy is better for workers and communities than what we leave behind.

As long as the UK government hasn’t had to make this call, the fight against Cambo isn’t over

In September 2020, Friends of the Earth Scotland, Platform and Greenpeace published the ‘Offshore report’, the outcome of a survey of more than 1,300 offshore oil and gas workers about their experiences of the industry and views on just transition. Follow-up from this has included putting workers directly in touch with politicians, as well as specific campaigns being led directly by workers’ demands, such as for an Offshore Training Passport to tackle the barriers created by training requirements and costs for people who want to move from offshore oil to renewables.

On top of this, in the run-up to COP26, there was a larger focus on wider education that centres around the role of fossil fuels, the need for a Just Transition and hearing from those already being impacted by the climate crisis globally.

So, when we first heard about Cambo, a huge new oil field being proposed off the west coast of Shetland, it felt like a pivotal test of how the climate movement would be able to respond.

Six months to success

In June 2021, months before the UK was due to host COP26, organisations and activists started to come together around the Stop Cambo campaign. This emerged soon after the International Energy Agency’s report that there can be no new oil and gas developments if we’re to keep average temperature rise to below 1.5ºC. Stop Cambo was an obvious rallying cry and a clear example of the British government’s hypocrisy.

From the start, the campaign has been a joint effort: from those deeply embedded in oil and gas policy to filmmakers and communicators to activists ready to take action on the ground. It was loosely coordinated, mostly online, with many calls to discuss strategy, messaging and upcoming actions, but was also deliberately not possessive of the Stop Cambo name. More and more groups have taken a range of actions under the same banner, building momentum and pressure from more angles than any one organisation could have done alone.

This has included an occupation of the UK government building in Edinburgh in July, which kicked off the public campaign; theatrical and artistic media-grabbing stunts targeting major actors in the project; petitions handed to Downing Street; direct challenges by young activists to politicians and Shell’s CEO; local actions in Shetland where the community spoke out against Cambo, and mass online actions including tweeting and emailing MPs asking them to speak out and phoning decision-makers, funders and backers of the project.

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For many, the Cambo campaign has also been an entry point into the climate movement, with people running street stalls, putting up posters and hundreds joining introductory calls to get involved.

The clarity of the ‘Stop Cambo’ message has been a major part in the campaign’s success, as it exposed the hollowness of the government and fossil fuel companies' grand claims of climate action. How can any politician be a climate leader while they are pushing ahead with new oil fields? People saw through the PR lines being thrown at them by the oil and gas industry.

In August 2020, youth activists confronted Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon at a constituency event with their concerns about their futures if Cambo was approved. For such a consummate communicator as Sturgeon, the footage made her look uncertain and drew media attention to the hypocrisy of the Scottish government’s positioning itself as a ‘climate leader’ while also being an oil and gas cheerleader.

The work the climate movement has done over the past few years, and during the Stop Cambo campaign, to build public understanding about the role of fossil fuels and the possibility of alternatives, meant that the campaign could be polarising without losing much in the field of public opinion. In fact, the controversy surrounding the field helped to increase our support, as once it reached a certain level of notoriety it became part of every conversation about climate and politicians couldn’t avoid discussing it. Cambo quickly began making its own weather in the media.

What’s next?

In the past few weeks, the dominoes began to fall. With Sturgeon finally speaking against the field just after COP26 ended in Glasgow, every major political party except the Tories had positioned themselves in opposition to Cambo.

Now that Shell has pulled out, forcing Siccar Point energy to pause the development of the project, it looks like Cambo may be gone for good. After months of delays caused by the Stop Cambo campaign, these companies have been unable to progress with their plans. Cambo has become too toxic, even for Shell.

There are 29 other offshore oil and gas fields in the UK expected to seek approval before 2025

However, the companies pulling out in this way has allowed the UK government to avoid making its own call on Cambo, which would have forced them to choose between the inevitable backlash, legal challenges and ramping up of action that approving Cambo would provoke, or taking a stand against new oil and gas in the North Sea.

As long as the government hasn’t had to make this call, the fight against Cambo isn’t over. If a new backer emerges, approval could still be given for work to start on the field. And Cambo is just the tip of the iceberg – there are 29 other offshore oil and gas fields in the UK expected to seek approval before 2025.

Few of us seriously expected to bring the Cambo project to its knees in just six months. Our surprise success demonstrates just how quickly things can change and makes the urgency of a Just Transition sharper than ever. It is negligent for our governments to sit by and watch as fields like Cambo fall because activists force companies to back out. They must invest in real transition plans led by workers and the communities most dependent on oil and gas. The climate movement must fight just as hard for those people as it has against Cambo.

The Stop Cambo campaign has shown that the climate movement is finally ready to take on the huge challenge of North Sea oil and gas, in a way that is uncompromising on the need to phase out fossil fuels, while ensuring a fair future for workers and communities. There’s a lot of work to do and we need everyone to make that happen.

Get involved with the Stop Cambo campaign here.

Some but not all of the groups involved in the Stop Cambo campaign can be found here.

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