Fraying ties? Networks, territory and transformation in the UK oil sector

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Geography


International oil firms, with production networks spread across the world, have embedded parts of their global operations in the UK for over a century. Some of these global firms produce oil in the UK, while others refine and sell it; some are headquartered in the UK, or seek access to scientific skills or finance for their projects. The diversity and longevity of these different ties between global oil firms and national territory mean assumptions are often made about their stability and permanence, and about the security of the UK's strategic position within the international political economy of oil.

The way the UK is 'plugged into' global oil networks is changing, in the context of a global shift in oil demand away from Europe, declining production in the North Sea, and growing action by governments and society to accelerate low carbon transition. International oil firms with deep roots in the UK, such as Shell and BP, are shedding historically significant assets and their UK footprint is shrinking. At the same time, a diverse group of new firms - with neither the range nor depth of ties to the UK as long-established firms - have entered the UK seeking access to resources, finance, product markets and expertise. These new firms insert the UK into the global political economy of oil in new ways, and their growing role is re-working relationships and practices that have tied international oil firms to the UK for decades. The trajectories, processes and consequences of this transformation in the UK oil sector are not well understood.

This research investigates the ongoing transformation of the UK's strategic position within global oil networks. It uses social science methods and an innovative research design to analyse transformation across three levels: in asset-firm relations, institutions and elite networks, and political-economic practices and norms. It will generate new knowledge about the changing role of five kinds of 'asset' in the UK (natural resources, access to capital, product markets, expertise and diplomatic capacity) for international oil firms; and about the diversity, depth and durability of ties between these international firms and assets. Research will be undertaken by an international, interdisciplinary team trained in economic geography, political science and anthropology and with shared expertise in analysing oil networks; and in collaboration with a third-sector organisation (Platform) with a 20-year track-record of research on global oil networks in the UK.

The research will create outputs for academic researchers in the social sciences, and a range of non-academic audiences associated with the UK oil sector, broadly understood. The project will contribute new knowledge that advances understanding about the 'coupling' processes that connect national and global economies, and develop a new interdisciplinary perspective that social scientists can use to understand and assess this process. Knowledge created by the research will be shared with the international research community by publishing journal articles, presenting findings at international conferences, and writing a book. The project team will work closely with non-academic research users in civil society, industry and government during the research process. They will design outputs that can inform strategic understandings of transformation and working practices, including working papers, visualisations of transformation and animation, policy briefings and executive summaries. The project will also inform general audiences and produce educational materials for A-level teachers and students, in collaboration with the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

The research project will benefit three audiences:

1. Practitioners within the UK oil sector, broadly understood, who undertake the actions and interventions through which network-territory 'coupling' is sustained. These include (a) specific constituencies of actors who convene around each of the five territorial assets categories we will investigate (e.g. oil companies seeking access to these assets, state agencies who regulate or administer assets, advocacy organisations seeking to influence terms of access) and who share with the research team a specialised interest in how and why asset-firm relations are being reworked and with what effects. It also includes (b) organisations with a stake in the shifting composition of the UK oil sector and which act as 'representative' bodies at regional or national level, such as industry trade bodies associated with oil exploration, production, finance and skills, civil society organisations and think-tanks, and government departments (e.g. BEIS, OGA, DEFRA).

2. Intermediary organisations involved in brokering information about the sector to different audiences, but which are not direct participants in the sector themselves. These include high-level expert forums (e.g., the All-Party Parliamentary Groups); specialist media conveying analysis of key sectoral trends to an international audience (e.g. Platts, Bloomberg, FT); national/regional broadcast media interested in the consequences of the processes the project seeks to understand; and teachers and educators (e.g. A-level Human Geography curriculum).

3. Researchers in the social sciences (a) working on globalisation, geographically uneven development, and the articulation of national and global economies; and (b) undertaking research on the cultural and political economies of oil.

How will they benefit from this research?

The project provides a systematic analysis of the evolution and contemporary transformation of the UK's strategic position in global oil production networks. It will generate new knowledge about the changing role of five kinds of 'asset' in the UK (natural resources, access to capital, product markets, expertise and diplomatic capacity) for international oil firms; and about the diversity, depth and durability of ties between these international firms and assets. It investigates processes and practices in and around the oil sector that involve actions and interventions by corporate actors, government agencies and civil society organisations. Project outputs will be valuable to these bodies, as they are likely to inform their strategic understanding and potentially impact their working practices. The project's analyses of the causes, mechanisms and consequences of transformation are also likely to command wider interest among specialist and general audiences. These audiences will benefit through the production and dissemination of working papers, policy briefings, executive summaries, visualisation, animation, educational materials, and via engagement across the project and in outreach events (RGS Environment and Society Forum, End of Award Conference).

Academic audiences will benefit from the project's substantive findings about the constitutive networks, institutions and practices through which ties to territory are forged, maintained and eroded. They will also benefit from its development of a novel interdisciplinary perspective, that build on models of 'strategic coupling' and focuses on the institutions, social networks and practices through which ties to territory are reproduced. This interdisciplinary perspective speaks to wider social science questions about how to account for processes of political-economic transformation. We will create and disseminate outputs for a social science audience including international journal publication, a co-authored book, conference panels and presentations, and a project website.


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