FILM REVIEW: The Oil Machine

“We go through about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day in the UK. If we just take one part of the North Sea, the Forties pipeline system, it’s arguably one of the largest machines in Western Europe, or possibly the world, and that machine constitutes all the platforms and all the oil wells and all the pipeline system. It drains oil from right over on the edge of the UK sea limit, or from the Brae field or the Montrose field, through the Forties pipeline system until it lands on the shore just north of Aberdeen. And that is one continuous system running all the way across the seabed, under the fields and forests and rivers. One piece of clockwork. One big machine. In effect. We’re living with that constantly running, 24 hours and day, 365 days a year. Until finally it gets to the west of Edinburgh, where it comes to Grangemouth refinery, and it also goes to an oil terminal at a place called Hound Point. At Grangemouth, it’s refined and it’s turned into a whole plethora of different products. So, petrol, aviation fuel, diesel and even tarmac. It’s turned into that.”

James Marriott, co-author of Crude Britannia and Executive Producer of The Oil Machine

Crude oil can be considered, along with money and silicon chips, the thing that makes the world go round. It not only fuels many machines we take for granted, it also the source of many useful substances, including many plastics. Being so useful, we have spent trillions drilling it out of the ground or the sea bed to get this “black gold.” Drilling for oil in the North Sea has been compared to the Moon Landings in scale and challenge. Here’s a quote from a book in my personal library.

“Think about standing at the top of a two-metre step ladder. Most of the ladder is underwater. Now drill a hole the width of a pencil in the ground beneath the ladder. You need a very long drill, because the hole is 30 metres deep. Sounds difficult? Drilling for oil at sea is much harder.”

Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections (1992)

For anyone who is fascinated with engineering, like me, it’s mind-boggling. However, this fascination can make you forget a massive elephant in the room – the carbon dioxide the oil produces when it’s burnt and what all that CO2 does to the Earth’s temperature regulation system.

Directed by Emma Davie, The Oil Machine explores the subject of our dependence on oil, focusing on its extraction in the North Sea and its role in the British economy. You’ll learn things like…

  • the head of BP, days before oil was found in the North Sea in 1970, said it was impossible for oil to be found there.
  • Two thirds of oil extracted from the North Sea is exported to other counties, including China.
  • “Net Zero” means continuing extracting oil, while capturing the same amount of carbon that had been produced to offset the damage. Why just not make the carbon in the first place?

The issue of our dependence to oil has become an issue of highlight recently, making this film’s airing on BBC Scotland in December 2022 timely. Its an issue I have kept up on, as it has long-reaching effects in the future. And this film confirms what I have found out.

In the past few years, the value of fossil fuels had fallen, while the value of renewable energy sources has gone up, even rivalling the levels fossil fuels once had decades ago. However, after inventing billions into it, investors of fossil fuels are a bit reluctant to jump ship. But, with the way things are going now, those investors are going to suffer, big time, if they continue holding on their pride.

“We have been constantly wrong about the scale at which renewables have become competitive. The price of solar has dropped by 80% in the last decade. Nobody, including the world’s leading energy forecasters, saw that coming. So, to continue to lock in our dependency on oil and gas, because we think that in 30 years’ time, we might still need it, is a huge mistake.”

Tessa Khan, environmental lawyer, co-founder and co-director of the Climate Litigation Network

I said earlier money makes the world go round. So, if there is going to be a dramatic change from an oil-based economy it’ll be through the financial system, by decisions in stock exchanges, that’ll finally bring it. Not by the voters voting out neoliberalism, but by the movement of money away from people backing a dying horse, because it had a great track record.

“Right now, the future of North Sea oil is in the hands of the investment houses. As the oil and gas depletes in the UK now, the majors aren’t making enough quick enough, and as their assets get older they’re got to spend more money on them and they don’t want to be doing that either.

So, what we’re got now are investment houses looking to make a quick buck. As we move forward with the whole climate debate, you’re going to see these investment houses being exposed and attacked for continuing to invest in oil and gas. These investment houses are going to think twice and a lot of them are just going to pull the plug. And if they pull the plug that ends operations here. That shuts it down.”

Jake Molloy, former oil worker, Aberdeen’s regional organizer of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union

Many people are interviewed, including the two above, from all aspects of the subject. Climate activists, engineers, oil execs, investors. But the highlight for me has been James Marriott, co-author of the 2021 book Crude Britannia (and an executive producer of The Oil Machine). Not only he provides some insight into the history of the North Sea oil industry, but also, throughout the film, he draws a map of the North Sea and its wells. I personally find this a great touch, being an artist who had done such artwork in the past.

In general, it is a well-thought-out, thought-provoking film on a pressing subject in our time.

The Oil Machine – official trailer

The Oil Machine is available to view in the UK through BBC iPlayer.

There is also a dedicated website which catches up on things since its filming –

Review by Professor Gordon Wallace

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