Hospicing the Pipeline

7 Mar 2023 james

The Oil Machine in Hawick

A marker of the Wilton to Grangemouth Ethylene Pipeline – near Kirkton Manor in the Scottish Borders

Julie and I talked long. And we talked of death. We talked of the passing of fathers, and husbands, and friends.

An idea grew between us through that conversation in her flat. Later we shared it with those sitting in The Cornucopia Room, gathered to watch a screening of The Oil Machine. In the exchange that followed, with the words flowing back and forth, we covered much ground.

“Who feels powerless? Who feels empowered?”

Kerry, our host, asked the audience that evening. The raised hands divided the assembled almost exactly into two halves. We explored the sense of the impossibility of tackling the oil machine, and its world of pesticides, petrol and plastics.

We considered the idea that Julie and I had shared. That the oil machine is dying, it will die of its own accord and our task is to help it in its passing. The scholar Vanessa Machado de Oliveira wrote of Hospicing Modernity, of the notion that we need to help something to die. We talked of ‘hospicing the oil machine’. That the machine is like a body and it is failing. That there are those who wish to lengthen its days, but we should speed and ease its demise. That we can work to make the impact of its death less painful upon those left behind. That we – consumers and producers, workers and communities – can ready ourselves carefully for the coming days when we shall live without it, and carry it only in our memories.

At present we live in the shelter of the oil machine, it makes possible the realisation of so many of our desires and it appears to underpin so much of our security.

Some of the conversation at the screening touched upon plastics. We talked without anxiety about letting go of things we sensed as unnecessary – a plastic straw, a plastic bag. Yet loosing those things that seem essential makes us fearful. I talked of the plastic Pacemaker buried in my father’s beating heart.

That there can be life without oil, beyond oil, seems almost inconceivable to us. And yet the ‘just transition’ that is talked of for those ‘in the industry’, those working on the rigs and in the petrochemical plants, has to be made by each of us in this oil world. This requires a shift not only from the material world of oil, but from the emotional realm of oil too.

The realities of such a radical change seem graphic in a town like Hawick, which grew for a century and a half on the back of the wool and stocking mills along the Teviot and the Slitrig Water. These mills made the town a global centre of cashmere production, but have closed with frightening speed over the past two decades. The town has been shrinking. The impact of ‘transition’ is visible in the population of Hawick, which has shrunk from nearly 16,000 in 1991 to about 13,000 today. In a country where most towns are growing, this is a striking indicator of decline. The textile industry has been dying, painfully and brutally.


The Wilton to Grangemouth Ethylene Pipeline and its sister the Trans-Pennine Ethylene Pipeline

The day after the screening I take the bus north to Galashiels and from there onto Berwick-upon-Tweed. It is a bliss morning. The sun sparkling off the landscape of snow. White Sheep on the white fields, black Crows in the black trees. The driver speeds out of Hawick on the A7 towards Selkirk, up along the edge of the Ettrick Forest. As the black tarmac curves around the woodlands’ edge – just east of Headshaw New Plantation – I look back down the hillside towards the Ale Water. A glimpse of orange jolts my attention. There it is! An orange topped post, with a bold black number painted upon it, marking the pipeline that we’d talked of at The Cornucopia last night. Here is the line running out of the forest and away down the hill.

The full ethylene pipeline system running between Scotland and England

This is the Wilton to Grangemouth Ethylene Pipeline, known in the industry as the WGEP. It is a child of the Forties Oil Pipeline. In The Oil Machine film the latter is portrayed through hand-drawn maps and radiant drone footage, running from the North Sea bed near Norway to the shore north of Aberdeen and under fields and forests to the refinery at Grangemouth, west of Edinburgh. At Grangemouth the crude oil is transformed into a range of substances, from bitumen to naphtha. Then the naphtha is processed into the gas ethylene, the foundation stone of all plastics manufacture. This is the ethylene pumped through the pipeline beneath the Sitka Spruce plantations of the Ettrick Forest.

It is a deadly material, and the WGEP is officially described as a Major Hazard Pipeline. Through this steel tube, a foot or so in diameter running past the roots of the trees,  chemical gas is pumped at a pressure perhaps ninety times greater than the air above ground in the fields. Should there be a leak, the gas would escape and instantly freeze all that it touched. The pipe snakes away, unknown and unnoticed, to the west of Hassenden and Denholm, just outside Hawick. Then over Rubers Law to Carter Bar in the Cheviot Hills and into England.

Discovered in October 1970, the Forties oil field gave a narcotic rush to the UK North Sea oil industry and transformed the body of Britain. Five years later the Forties Pipeline carried crude to Grangemouth and a mere four years after, in 1979, the ethylene pipe was laid through the hills and farmland of Southern Scotland and Northumberland. This artery linked Grangemouth to the chemical plants at Wilton in Teesside. Soon, further lines were run south to Saltend, on the east side of Hull, and then west to Carrington by Manchester, and Runcorn and Stanlow near Liverpool. Pipes of plastic gas linked four estuaries – the Forth, the Tees, the Humber and the Mersey. They linked key industrial works and corporations of Britain – BP at Grangemouth and Hull, ICI at Runcorn and Wilton, and Shell at Stanlow and Carrington.

The ethylene pipelines in Lancashire and Merseyside

But this machine has been dying since. Carrington is a vast plain of concrete where the works stood. The plants at Teesside have been shrinking, and likewise at Hull. And the role of the British state has withered too. The refinery at Grangemouth and the chemical works on Teesside and Runcorn, once owned by those ‘national champions’ BP and ICI, are now the property of INEOS. (In Crude Britannia we describe how this private equity corporation is barely domiciled for tax in the UK.) Stanlow was sold by Shell to the Indian multinational, Essar. And the WGEP itself, built by ICI and BP, was bought by INEOS and then sold onto the Saudi oil company Sabic. It is a Riyadh based multinational that now owns the pipeline beneath the Ettrick Forest.

Each of the corporations that built or purchased the pipeline only did so because it offered the promise of profit. The trench was dug and the steel tube laid within it because a spreadsheet declared that it would generate a good return on capital. There is still money in plastics – it is the hugely profitable core of INEOS’s operations in plants spread across the globe.

But the future of that profit is in doubt, if the intent of those in the Hawick audience – and millions like them – is realised. If the culture of Scotland, of Britain, of Europe and the World, turns its back on plastics, then the petrochemical industry that pumps this matter out into our daily lives will cease to exist. The steel tube beneath Ettrick Forest will cease to pulse with pumped gas and lie lifeless.

And yet how do we forgo those things that seem so essential which utilise plastic? And what of those who labour in the petrochemical plants?

How to help the oil machine’s passing? How to hospice its’ demise?


With many thanks to Julie Witford, Kerry Jones, Claire Pencak, Jane Trowell, Prof Gavin Bridge, Terry Macalister and Annie Brooker.

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