Oil and Water

Oil and Water

In The Rig, the connections between the workplace dangers of oil drilling and the existential peril of climate change come into chilling focus.

Oil rigs in Invergordon, Scotland, await transportation to scrapyards in 2018. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Fulmer Hamilton stands in a boilersuit and a hard hat wielding a flare gun. Further oil production threatens disaster on the Kinloch Bravo platform, located off the coast of Scotland in the harsh conditions of the North Sea. Following a power outage, only a manual shutdown can override the system and spare the crew from a petroleum-fueled explosion. The Scottish rig worker is bending the rules, following knowledge and intuition gained on the job. Fulmer succeeds in at least momentarily saving himself and his colleagues, but only after giving himself an easier shot by firing within the blast radius created by the shutdown.

This is a scene from Amazon Prime’s The Rig, a show that confronts economic precarity and workplace danger from aboard a North Sea oil installation in its final days of production. Over six episodes, the series offers a glimpse at the often-invisible industry of offshore drilling, which has been crucial to the development of global oil production and to half a century of economic change in Britain. Fulmer’s actions are heroic, but he is unable to save the rig from being decommissioned or from a mysterious and harmful fog that emerges from the ocean floor, in a clear allegory for climate change.

The Rig centers on the Kinloch Bravo and its American operator, Pictor Energy, which are both fictional but are modeled on the real world of North Sea oil and gas production. The workers on the rig speak in a chorus of accents, hailing from across the Welsh Valleys, the north and south of England, and western and eastern Scotland. These voices give life to the storied history of the North Sea and to its uncertain future.

Oil workers have faced layoffs by the thousands since the 2014 crash in oil prices and the nadir that followed in 2020, when COVID-19 ravaged the global economy. The Scottish government has committed to a “just transition” as part of its climate policy, which implies that the government and employers have a responsibility to protect the economic security of workers and communities impacted by the winding down of environmentally harmful industrial activities. Debates over the North Sea oil industry have been animated by memories of the calamitous mine and mill closures of the 1980s and 1990s, which devastated towns and cities built around heavy industries. Gargantuan revenues from North Sea oil sustained the British economy during the first half of the 1980s, when unemployment and industrial job losses reached their peak.

Most North Sea oil and gas workers have not heard the term “just transition,” according to a 2020 report published by environmental groups in the United Kingdom, but the majority say they would consider leaving the

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