Students looking for a career in the onshore oil and gas industry were expected to enrol in a new national college this month.
But although the college has received an estimated £1.5m in start-up money from government and industry, it is not now expected to open for at least two or three years.
The institution, called the National College of Onshore Oil and Gas or NCOOG, was part of an initiative launched by the government in 2014. Its aim was to develop skills needed for a thriving UK onshore drilling and fracking industry.
It received £750,000 from the then Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, a sum said to be matched by the onshore industry. The government also promised another £5.6m for equipment and facilities.
The four other national colleges announced at the same time have all opened, offering training in high speed rail, nuclear engineering, digital skills and the creative and cultural industries.
But at NCOOG it is hard to find evidence so far of staff, promotion or much course development.
There is no website and, as far as DrillOrDrop can establish, no lecturers, accredited courses or students.
NCOOG is a joint venture company, owned by Blackpool and Fylde College (B&FC) and the industry body UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG).
DrillOrDrop put a series of detailed questions to B&FC about funding, staffing, and achievements.
We received a short general statement which failed to address most of our questions. When DrillOrDrop put the same set of questions to UKOOG we received no reply.
Mandy Mills, a Fylde resident, has researched the development of NCOOG. She said of the delay:
“The local and national press releases concerning the launch of what the BBC called the ‘fracking college’ excitably talked about commitment to the area and world-class technical and professional training.
“Francis Egan, of Cuadrilla said it ‘would give the North-West a head-start in developing skills’. UKOOG’s Ken Cronin felt the college would set out ‘the ambition of this industry right from the start to commit to training people in this country’.
“This kind of press attempts to convince those of us that live near a fracking site that there are benefits; that this is a benign industry which wants to look after the community.
“Three years down the line it seems that none of this ‘ambition’ has been realised or was likely to be realised.”
What do we know about NCOOG?
DrillOrDrop and Mandy Mills have compiled details about NCOOG from limited public information and responses to Freedom of Information requests.
The story begins in June 2014 when the government called for proposals to establish pioneering colleges that would develop higher level skills for UK industry. B&FC and UKOOG submitted a joint bid.
In November 2014, the government announced that the NCOOG had been successful. Along with the four other national colleges, NCOOG would open in 2016 and would achieve an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted by September 2018.
The government said each college would have a long-term investment plan, governing documents, a refined business plan specifying the curriculum, a governance structure, industry mechanism to provide funds and the definition of a set of standards and qualifications. These documents and strategies were to be developed in 2015.
NCOOG received £750,000 of government development money, to be matched by the oil and gas industry.
A statement from UKOOG said the new college was to have its headquarters at B&FC, which runs the Lancashire Energy HQ. NCOOG would also work with four partner institutions: the University of Chester’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, Highbury College’s Centre of Excellence in Construction and Engineer in Portsmouth; Redcar and Cleveland College’s Teesside Oil and Gas Academy; and the Weir Advanced Research Centre at University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
At the time, Bev Robinson, Principal and Chief Executive at B&FC, said:
“To be named as the hub of one of the national colleges is a privilege.”
“This will drive long-term investment in the region, meet the demand for highly skilled labour and secure local jobs.”
She said NCOOG had been supported by “industry-leading organisations” including Centrica Energy and Cuadrilla Resources”.
In January 2015, Colette Cohen, then head of Centrica’s UK oil and gas production business, was appointed the chair of NCOOG.
The announcement said NCOOG was entering a “critical phase”. The then business minister, Matthew Hancock, said of Ms Cohen:
“She has a thoroughly important job training the next generation of onshore oil and gas engineers and specialists who will extract the shale gas from beneath the ground.”
The press release issued at the time also said NCOOG would focus on four areas:
- Providing specialist skills needed by the industry and training teachers and regulators
- Accredit courses run by other institutions
- Carry out research and development to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impacts
- Work with schools to encourage children to consider careers in industry
The next stage, the press release said, was to develop a business plan and curriculum.
Incorporation and recruitment
NCOOG was incorporated on 30 September 2015, three months after Cuadrilla was refused planning permission by Lancashire County Council to frack at two sites near Blackpool.
The directors included B&FC’s Principal, Bev Robinson, and its Secretary, Paul Howard, along with UKOOG’s chief executive, Ken Cronin. Other directors included: Matt Betts, Vice President of Haliburton; John Blaymires, Chief Operating Officer of IGas; Lee Petts, Managing Director of Remsol Ltd; and Gary Haywood, then Chief Executive of INEOS Upstream. Mr Petts and Mr Haywood have both since resigned from the board.
In January 2016, NCOOG commissioned a recruitment agency to advertise for a managing director. The post was to be home-based, on a salary of £100,000, for appointment in March 2016. Link
By this time, the opening date had slipped to September 2017, according to the application pack.
This said NCOOG would operate through a “hub-and-spoke delivery model”. Courses would be delivered by partner organisations on their campuses across England.
The successful candidate would, among other things, ensure delivery of the NCOOG business plan, provide “strong and inspirational leadership and strategic direction” and oversee the robust financial management of NCOOG”.
There was no announcement of an appointment. We asked whether anyone had been recruited to the role. There was no response from NCOOG or UKOOG.
In April 2016, the Government confirmed it would give £80 million to the National Colleges to “deliver the workforce of tomorrow”. NCOOG was to receive £5.6m for equipment from the Department of Business and Industrial Strategy.
This would be used to “purchase a full suite of training equipment” to enable NCOOG to “offer world-class technical and professional training and education”.
A month later, UKOOG announced that the government funding would unlock industry equipment donations worth a further £2.25m.
Ms Cohen, NCOOG’s chair, said at the time:
“This funding will allow us to progress quickly with the establishment of the college and open new exciting training and career opportunities to local people.”
To get this far, the government said the colleges had to “pass a detailed examination of their business plans and capital proposals” (link).
A board paper to B&FC said NCOOG submitted its business case on 16 July 2015. We asked to see a copy of the NCOOG business plan. B&FC and UKOOG did not respond to our request.
We also asked whether NCOOG had received the £5.6m in capital money.
The college said:
“No further government funding other than the £750k has been drawn down and the college is currently being funded by the industry.”
This was confirmed by the Department for Education, which is now responsible for the National Colleges.
In March 2017, NCOOG failed to appear on the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers. A spokesperson told the education newspaper, FE Week:
“With the industry still developing and its requirements for skills becoming clearer, NCOOG has not yet been launched”.
The spokesperson added:
“The NCOOG will make a formal announcement ahead of its official opening, at this stage it is not expected to be in September.”
Yet at this point, the outlook for the onshore oil and gas industry was more optimistic.
The Communities Secretary had granted permission to Cuadrilla to frack up to four wells in Lancashire and the company had begun site preparation work. Third Energy had permission for a test frack in North Yorkshire and IGas had consent for three shale gas exploration wells in Nottinghamshire. INEOS was beginning the planning process for wells in Derbyshire and Rotherham and oil exploration was also getting underway at several sites in southern England.
But the NCOOG board were apparently not persuaded. And a response from B&FC to a Freedom of Information request suggests that the timetable had been slipping before then.
A B&FC board paper in September 2016 said:
“The level of development within the industry has been slower than anticipated; primarily due to the lack of approvals for planning permissions for exploratory drilling wells. As the Board may be aware, where these have been granted they have been challenged via appeals and through the judicial review process.
“This situation has been further compounded by a low oil price which has resulted in the traditional oil and gas industry making significant reductions in headcount. As a result, industry’s requirement for students to be trained has been delayed until around 2019/2020 (subject to planning approval and successful explorations).”
Where are we now?
DrillOrDrop and Mandy Mills tried to find out what NCOOG had achieved and how this compared with the other national colleges.
The National College of Digital Skills launched in September 2016 in Tottenham Hale in London. It has 6th form students and apprentices and is on the Register of Apprentice Training Providers (RoATP).
The National College of High Speed Rail opened this September in Birmingham and Doncaster with a small group of apprentices already employed in the rail sector. It is offering four higher apprenticeship schemes and a certificate in higher education.
Asked about NCOOG’s achievements, a spokesperson said:
“The National College for Onshore Oil and Gas (NCOOG) was launched in November 2014 with £750k funding matched by industry to produce a business plan, set up the governance of the college and outline initial potential training courses.
“A business plan was produced which resulted in a further £5.6m being granted by government to provide equipment for NCOOG matched in part by industry.
“A board for the NCOOG has been established and initial training course outlines for HSSE [health, safety, security and environment] have been developed.”
The spokesperson added:
“NCOOG is ready to move to the next stage but will do so once the industry is ready to progress.”
Despite this, NCOOG has no website, although it said it would develop one when the industry develops.
We asked about staffing, current funding, the long-term investment plan, future applications to RoATP, skills capability in the industry and oversight of NCOOG. We got no response.
On course development, a spokesperson for one of the partners said:
“University of Chester has started the development of a range of courses on related subjects and which will come into play early in 2018. These include Health & Safety, Project Planning, Legal aspects of OOG, Comparative energy sources and others under discussion.”
And a spokesperson at Redcar and Cleveland told FE Week that NCOOG was busy developing training courses and standards.
But OPITO, the UK national training organisation for oil and gas extraction, has not accredited any courses at NCOOG or B&FC or any of the partner organisations.
An FoI response from B&FC in August 2017 said:
“B&FC is not currently working on any courses to facilitate NCOOG.”
The NCOOG spokesperson said the initial course outlines developed by NCOOG had “led UKOOG to develop its guidance for HSSE training”.
The spokesperson pointed us to a 7-page Training and Induction Guideline, produced by UKOOG in November 2016. This said it aimed to “support operators in ensuring that the onshore oil and gas industry carries out operations to the highest health, safety, security and environmental standards and minimises risks to people and the environment.”
Mandy Mills responded:
“As far as I can tell, this is an induction procedure document for visitors to Cuadrilla’s site at Preston New Road.
“It is for the benefit of the industry and seems to have little to do with training young people in any high-level engineering skills or qualifications.
“Is this really the result of £1.5 million of development money? What has the board of the National College for Onshore Gas been doing for three years?
“After so much back-slapping and thanks being extended to industry partners and local MPs back in 2014, I’m wondering whether Bev Robinson, of B&FC, still feels it is a ‘privilege to be named as a hub for one of the national colleges’?”