Navigating the North Sea of opportunities: How energy companies can leverage the UK immigration system as they transition from oil and gas to renewables  

12/10/2023
Gillian Gibbons (Fragomen)

By Gillian Gibbons, Manager, Fragomen

THE UK government has made several serious commitments towards the country’s quest for energy independence. In addition to issuing hundreds of new North Sea oil and gas licences this past summer and more to come this autumn, the country also continues its renewables strategy, albeit acknowledging that by 2050 a quarter of UK’s energy needs will still come from oil and gas. 

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A new report by Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, Powering up the Workforcehighlighted the importance of carefully managing the transition from reliance on oil and gas to renewables in order to retain and support the transfer of thousands of highly skilled oil and gas individuals into the renewables energy sector; “retaining the offshore oil and gas supply chain, its workforce and associated skills over the next five yearswill be crucial.” 

Furthermore, the report talks of, “a workforce ‘goldilocks zone’ between 2024 and 2028 when the UK supply chain capacity and capability can be sustained, developed and invested in, so that the transferability of the offshore energy workforce is optimised.”

The economic benefits of UK energy independence and carefully managing the transition to renewables was reiterated by David Whitehouse, CEO of Offshore Energies UK (OEUK); “Meeting more of our needs from energy produced in the UK means more jobs in the UK. The UK offshore energy sector embraces the challenges and opportunities of the energy transition. Not only in oil and gas but the future opportunities in wind, carbon storage, and a hydrogen economy. 

Boosting oil and gas industry

The award of new licences is expected to help manage the decline of the oil and gas industry by promoting exploration in the hope new discoveries are made whilst existing fields see production decline or are decommissioned. New licences should lead to greater investment and the generation of new jobs, however, attracting highly skilled and specialised talent within a labour market that is still being described as ‘tight’ with high vacancies and low unemployment, finding the ‘right’ talent becomes ever more challenging. 

Leveraging the UK immigration system

Due to the current state of the UK labour market, companies may need to source or bring existing talent from outside the UK. Existing and future companies looking to invest, attract and retain global talent in the energy sector need to understand how they can leverage the UK immigration system to fill key positions in operations, engineering, projects, and procurement and supply chain management. 

Navigating the UK immigration system and work options available for personnel in the energy sector can be challenging and complex. It requires understanding and knowledge of the immigration rules that govern the waters in which the work will be undertaken. 

If the work will take place within the UK territorial waters (UKTW) which is the 12nm radius from the shoreline, then work authorisation will be required under the UK immigration system’s Points Based System (PBS). To sponsor an individual on a work visa, the UK company will require a UK Sponsor licence issued by the UK Home Office and the individual will need to apply for their work visa from their country of nationality or country of legal residence. If a company does not hold a UK sponsor licence, then a company should factor in a four to five-month lead time in which to obtain the licence and have the employee work ready in UK waters. With a licence already in place, lead time is reduced to four to six weeks.

Whether a Skilled Worker or a Global Business Mobility – Senior or Specialist Worker visa (formerly known as the intra-company transfer route) will be the appropriate visa to facilitate the work and choosing the right one, will largely depend on the skill level of the role, the salary, and the duration of the UK work. Of course, if work is undertaken both within UKTW and outside, then obtaining work permission under the PBS will still be required.

However, an individual who will be based outside UKTW but within the UK Continental Shelf (200 miles from the UK shoreline), working on an installation wholly at sea and fixed to the seabed (either permanently or temporarily) will not be subject to UK immigration control, the rules that govern these waters are ‘outside the rules’ and therefore, it’s likely a Continental Shelf work visa (formerly known as the Offshore Worker visa) will be appropriate. 

The UK company does not need a UK sponsor licence for this type of visa and the individual can apply for a one-year visa from their country of nationality or country of legal residence to allow them to transit through the UK to work offshore but also reside onshore during rotations. Those submitting an out of country application will see a significantly reduced lead time of four to six weeks and they also have the ability to obtain extensions in-country or apply for successive visas if required. For non-visa nationals, if time in the UK offshore is less than six months, they can be granted entry at the UK border (without an entry visa) with the appropriate supporting paperwork to evidence intention to work offshore for a specified period.

Companies can also leverage alternative non-sponsored visa routes to facilitate expeditious deployment of employees, such as the Youth Mobility, High Potential Individual, Global Talent or UK Ancestry visas. 

Offshore excellence: Charter a clear course with compliance 

Bringing foreign talent to the UK to work offshore requires forward planning, especially for the effective deployment of personnel on time-critical projects which cannot be compromised where large project costs are at stake. Navigating the UK immigration system and rules that govern the waters can be complex and companies should seek legal advice from the outset to ensure both speed-to-ground and compliance.

Gillian, Manager at Fragomen, has more than 14 years of corporate immigration experience. Currently responsible for managing new client introductions to the firm and assisting clients with aspects of UK immigration, including the Points Based System (PBS). Previously headed up Fragomen’s Tier 5 International Internship Programme, which helps global companies to deliver large structured annual UK internship programmes, as well as support small-medium sized businesses with small off-cycle programmes.

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