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 industry for another position that used their skills and paid comparable wages. Such jobs are hard to come by, however. Though renewable electricity generation has reached impressive levels in the United Kingdom in recent years, workers have yet to see evidence of anything approaching former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise of a “green industrial revolution.” Oil workers and their unions are therefore incentivized to hang on to the jobs they have for as long as possible.

In The Rig, the evolution of the oil worker, from a rare beacon of prosperity amid Britain’s late-twentieth-century deindustrialization to a victim of economic history, is inferred by an aging Welsh rig worker who sardonically contrasts his fate with that of the steelworkers and miners he grew up around: “When the wheel’s done turning this time, there won’t even be ruins to remember us by.”

Though I hesitate to recommend the show—the acting is often deficient, and the storyline struggles to support the gravity of its subject matter—The Rig is a faithful and unusual portrayal of a world that has rarely been explored in British culture. Moreover, it boldly experiments with drawing a connection between the oil industry’s workplace dangers and the existential peril of climate change. Over the course of the series, the two threats intertwine in surprising and revealing ways.

During 2021 and 2022, I recorded several interviews with current and former offshore oil workers and trade unionists. I asked them about the beginning of North Sea drilling during the 1970s and 1980s, and its continuation long beyond expectations that the basin would be exhausted by the close of the twentieth century. The workers often described the enclosed and disconcerting environment on board rigs and talked about their perceptions and experiences of danger, risk, and injury.

In my interviews, one dominant theme emerged: the workers knew there was always a trade-off between production and the preservation of human life. In The Rig, this conflict is staged through the characters of Rose, Pictor’s representative, and Magnus, the rig’s offshore installation manager, who is responsible for the health and safety of the workers. Early in the series, a worn Magnus is given the grim task of informing his workforce that the Kinloch Bravo is soon to be decommissioned, which will lead to job losses.

Rose has dreams of shifting the company away from fossil fuels and toward greener energy generation, but in the meantime she is eager to pursue the platform’s final production objectives, even if it means taking reckless risks. As a woman and a geologist, Rose represents change in the sector’s demographics, but, through her pursuit of profit and self-advancement, she also symbolizes the industry’s continuities. When Magnus orders a shutdown after a disturbance induced by the fog, she worries about meeting the production quota. Magnus responds, “On the Bravo we stick to procedures, because if we don’t, people die. Trust me, the costs are a lot louder when they’re not on paper.”

Magnus warns Rose of the risk of an offshore inferno, a reference to one of the worst workplace disasters in modern British history. In July 1988, 167 men were killed after an explosion led to a large fire on Occidental’s Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea—an event that is seared into the collective memory of the industry. Every person I interviewed brought up Piper Alpha without prompting, and The Rig’s creator, David Macpherson, has talked about its impact on his family when he was growing up and his father was working offshore. Magnus’s insistence on the importance of procedure underlines the lessons the industry claimed to have learned following an inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster. In a later episode, Kinloch Bravo’s sister platform, Kinloch Charlie, explodes into a fireball, and survivors seek refuge on the remaining rig. These scenes are frighteningly plausible. Despite the measures taken after Piper Alpha, dangers offshore remain high. In March 2012, a blowout occurred on Total’s Elgin platform, and only the direction of the wind prevented the rig from catching fire.

Rose eventually becomes disillusioned with Pictor and throws her lot in with the rig’s workers—switching her white-collar shirt for a boilersuit. When a senior Pictor  representative gives orders to dissipate the fog surrounding the rig, threatening workers’ lives, she rejects the plan, telling him, “Guys like you think letting people die makes you some kind of grand realist.”

In an arc that resembles the romance plot of Brassed Off, a defining British cinematic account of coal-pit closures, Rose falls in love with Fulmer, the Scottish worker who saves the rig from exploding. Their relationship provides a stage for debates about the future of the industry. Rose believes that she might be able to reorient Pictor from oil and gas toward greener and cleaner sectors—“I do well here, I move up. I keep moving up. . . . This industry needs to change, but it doesn’t have to die if I can get to the board”—but Fulmer can only see layoffs. The show’s conclusion is a harsh judgement on Rose’s corporate optimism, revealing how wedded Pictor is to oil production, despite its apocalyptic costs. Given that The Rig was released just weeks before BP, Shell, and Equinor all announced record profits, and as oil majors retreated from their COP26 promises to cut carbon emissions, this portrayal was all too prescient.

The Rig is a representation of the North Sea born from decades of industrial change. Oil platforms were once celebrated as products of mid-twentieth-century modernity, but they are now viewed as rickety and dangerous, and their workers face an uncertain economic future. The oil workers I interviewed were united in agreeing on the need for a transition out of fossil fuels, but they were divided over what that change would look like. When I interviewed union officials such as Jake Molloy, the general secretary of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, they criticized the United Kingdom’s growing dependence on foreign oil and gas markets at the expense of domestic jobs and, likewise, its reliance on global manufacturing supply chains for wind turbines. Others foresaw a decades-long shift, requiring continued investment in the industry. Neil Rothnie, a retired offshore mud engineer I interviewed, is now an outspoken environmentalist who has joined Extinction Rebellion protests. When we spoke in 2022, Rothnie articulated a sense that his background as a trade unionist, fighting health-and-safety battles, gave him some understanding of the dangers posed by climate change and the disreputable nature of oil companies.

The oil industry’s responsibility for climate change is never far from the surface of The Rig. One worker complains that his children think he’s “ruining their futures”; as he sees it, his income has provided them with the means to live a comfortable life. Magnus has already borne a heavy price for his job—his eight-year-old son died in a car crash while Magnus was offshore. His grief weighs heavily on him, and informs a melancholic perspective: “It’s hardly been a good few years for dollars-a-barrel . . . which might not be a bad thing.”

For the show’s main characters, the meaning of climate change remains ambiguous. Are oil workers perpetrators or victims? Those who toil on the Kinloch Bravo are among the first to suffer the consequences of an environmental danger that their own employer has hidden from them. As the fog subsumed the rig, I thought of Neil Rothnie’s comments on the links between offshore health-and-safety standards and global climate chaos. The Rig’s message is perhaps best distilled in a brief but memorable piece of dialogue between the Bravo’s aging chef and one of his younger coworkers. In response to the fog, the chef laments, “We fucked up the planet and then we act surprised when it fucks us back.” His coworker replies, “I just drive a crane.”

Ewan Gibbs is a historian of energy, labor, and protest at the University of Glasgow. His first book, Coal Country, was published by the University of London Press.