energy film

Film review: The Oil Machine

The Oil Machine is a new documentary about the UK oil industry, how it has shaped our economy, and the hold it has on politics. I presume it’s being released in the week of COP27, but perhaps its more immediate relevance is to the debate around Just Stop Oil. While protestors take ever more extreme actions and the government blithely ignores its own climate advisors to issue more drilling licences, it’s well worth reviewing the story of how we got here. The Oil Machine tells that story, of why we need to just stop oil, and why it’s proving so hard to do.

We begin with the surprise discovery of offshore oil in 1970, and the sense of pride and achievement as Scotland built a huge industry from scratch to exploit it. The end result of this massive investment is a highly effective infrastructure mega-project that extracts oil and pipes it onshore for refining. The contributing writer James Marriott describes the Forties Oil Field as the “world’s largest machine”, echoing the film’s title.

The film acknowledges the wealth this created and the wonder of its engineering, but it doesn’t take long to reveal the downsides. Mikaela Loach, a medical student and climate justice campaigner, describes the health impact on local communities. Investors describe how the country’s pensions have become dependent on oil money, and how tightly the finance sector is tied into oil and gas. Climate scientists such as Sir David King and Kevin Anderson tell us how we cannot extract all the UK’s fossil fuels and keep our climate targets, and then the CEO of UK Oil and Gas comes on to tell us that’s exactly what they plan to do – but don’t worry, it’ll be net zero production.

This works the same way as Luton Airport’s net zero plans – sustainable as long as you ignore the planes. The UK’s oil and gas sector will be sustainable as long as you ignore the oil and gas. Yes, it is absurd. Yes, you will hear British politicians talk about it as if it is not. Because how can they stop the machine now, when the economy, pensions and government revenues rely so heavily on its profits? Denial, gaslighting and greenwash are all we’ve got, and one of the interviewees sums it up rather well with the phrase “carbon entanglement.”

The film crams a lot in – from climate effects in Scotland and beyond, the role of plastics, the costs of decommissioning. It doesn’t get deep into the politics, and neither can it capture the 2022 complications of Putin’s war. But what it does cover is balanced, with even oil industry figures admitting that we have an oil addiction.

I liked the way that the film included the industry, scientists and activists, giving it more neutrality than many similar films without sacrificing the message along the way. I liked the decision to feature children and young people among the talking head interviews, reflecting at the long term legacy of the industry.

Visually, the film nicely captures the scale and scope of the industry, with lingering drone shots of machines and rigs and pipelines. Archive footage is used sparingly. The North Sea is almost a character in the film, returning at various points to roar and splash as its seabed treasures are plundered. And as a fan of Jon Hopkins I appreciated the glitchy electronica soundtrack, its ticks and drones sonically placing us – as the whole film argues – inside the machine.

One thing that stood out to me is the way that the North Sea fossil fuel industry is at a turning point. We know we have to wind it up for the climate, but its profitability is also declining. There’s a stark choice here. The government has every intention of wringing every last drop from the region, but investors and operators are looking for a quick buck and an easy exit. Neither party are looking to manage the decline, but that’s exactly what we ought to be doing for both the climate and for a just transition for Scottish communities.

That’s what I find myself thinking about after the film. How do we break the cycle of denial and begin the honest process of winding the machine down?

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