Oil industry downturns can be cruel to an extent not widely understood by those who aren’t part of the oilfield and its machinations. The normally inflated wages of the industry, fair recompense for the additional risks and inconveniences involved in being a part of the multi-national race to extract this fundamental commodity, draw in migrant workforces from all over the globe.
Aberdeen, the glistening city of granite (when the sun occasionally peeks through the cloud), is perhaps one of the best examples of this. Two or three years ago, when the oil industry basked in its buoyant peak and oil prices were assumed to be staying over $100 per barrel for the rest of time and some, the remote and under-appreciated city of Aberdeen was unique in the UK; sheltered from the ills of the financial crisis of 2008.
Traffic was choking the city when the good times were kissing the silver sands of this northern industrial powerhouse. To cross the 7.3 miles from the Bridge of Dee in the south of the city to the Bridge of Don in the North of the city could, at peak times, consume a knuckle-whitening hour to ninety minutes of nose-to-tail gloom. Heliports were at bursting point too, with flights to and from rigs and platforms going on until late evening and into the dark hours, raising the stress levels of offshore workers that extra unwanted notch.
Business was booming though, as was clearly indicated by the masses of UK and foreign migrant workers who flocked to the city and throttled its infrastructure, and everybody who wanted a job could have one.
It can be unpleasant being in a region choking on its own success, but the heavy traffic and the teeth-clenching that can arise as a result of sitting unhealthily curved over your steering wheel can be alleviated just that tiny bit when an Audi R8 crawls past, followed by a Porsche 911, and then maybe a high-spec BMW. Ah… Aberdeen, a city of so many extremes, and a place that has just taken the biggest survivable jab to the gut that any urban area in the UK has ever taken in such a short space of time.
The traffic isn’t completely gone these days, post downturn, but the experience of traversing this ancient city by horseless carriage has tapered off by a very noticeable extent. The flashness of Aberdeen has tapered off too, with many of the penny-wise and far-sighted having traded in the Audi for a Honda or a Ford. Restaurants, hotels, and expensive shops are also widely reporting a downturn in business, with some discerning Aberdonians now beginning to feel the pinch of this most brutal of economic equalizations. A reported 65,000 job losses UK-wide have been the unfortunate consequence of the oil companies effectively halting exploration and development projects, and the signs are that the cheque books are still resolutely closed.
So what does the future hold for a city that has stared stoically into the howling gales of the North Sea for centuries?
The economics in this unforgiving modern world drive everything, and for Aberdeen that’s very unfortunate. Designer consumer goods and high performance cars have already seen a drop-off in popularity, which is all good and sensible to those seeking to balance the books. The real harbinger of doom and ruination to many families who have set the bar a little too high may come a couple of years down the line though, when the housing market rebalances to the new levels of wages and employment in the city. Throughout the good times, house prices have rocketed, but for every high there must be a subsequent low in this universe; that’s just the way of things. The housing market will crash should this downturn not be reversed soon, as has happened the world over as industries leave towns limping in their wake.
Know what though? I hate doom and gloom. The media is full of it; thrives on its existence even. So let’s all try to look on the bright side before we go, because there’s more to life than cowering in the corner as banks thrash you with red letters…
Aberdeen, finally and thankfully, is about to be blessed with a new by-pass. This will open up opportunities for city growth and expansion should the oil producers decide to release the moths and spend a few billion here and there, and if that hopefully likely event materialises then there’ll be no need to ruin your posture by spending hours in traffic queues on your daily commute. It might even be enjoyable again to be there!
There’s a gritty resiliance about the citizens of this fine corner of Scotland that makes me believe that, no matter what the international oil corporations can strip them of, the people who now own the industrial guile of Scotland’s current generation will make the city proud again.
But above all, and what should always be remembered as being more important than Exxon or Chevron shuffling banknotes around the financial tables of Aberdeen boardrooms, is that…
Oil isn’t everything.