There are no fish in Chile’s Quintero Bay. According to local fishermen, the water in this part of the Pacific Ocean is extremely toxic, polluted with high concentrations of mercury and copper tailings. It also exhibits a dramatic and life-extinguishing thermocline, caused by industrial processes that deposit both heated and chilled seawater back into the ocean within only a few hundred metres of each other. The result has been the formation of a stretch of coastline that is exceptionally inhospitable to organic life, a phenomenon that constitutes just one part of a wider environmental crisis that is affecting the Puchuncavi area.
It is the role of natural gas in this ecological catastrophe that I am interested in here, and how we, as academics interested in the social lives of materials, might understand gas to ‘speak’ in and through this crisis. Quintero Bay is the site of a large reception terminal for liquefied natural gas (LNG), which receives LNG from container ships, stores it in holders, and converts it back into gas ready for overland pipeline transmission. It is in this latter process of conversion that the materialities of gas and seawater collide, resulting in the ecologically significant jettison of chilled seawater described above. The driver for this process lies in the considerable thermal energy that seawater contains, energy that is used for warming LNG to a temperature above -161°C; the point at which it begins to convert back into a gaseous state. However, as the water exerts its heat upon the LNG, so the gas simultaneously exerts itself upon the water, forcing the water to undergo a dramatic reduction in temperature. In what follows, I propose that this might be one way in which we can understand the gas in Quintero Bay to perceivably ‘talk’.
Gas is unlike many of the materials that have formed the focus of vital materialist enquiries. It is, for example, distinctly different from Jane Bennett’s1 black plastic glove, her discarded bottle top, or her dead rat. This is because, unlike these materials, gas refuses to present itself readily for human somatic or sensorial experience. During our visit to Quintero Bay, we did not see gas, nor did we smell, touch, or taste it. We were not moved, seduced into contemplation, motivated to write, or spurred into action by simply observing it glinting in the sunlight, by being alarmed by its odor, or by feeling it brush against our skin. Gas, from our position as humans, was completely invisible, intangible, and odorless2. It was immune to human sensorial perception; it exceeded our senses and refused to grant us a direct audience.
But gas still speaks. Whilst beyond human sensation, it is not a formation of primordial matter that belongs to a world entirely inaccessible to human experience. Gas exerts itself upon other things that are sensible by human bodies (miner’s candles, scientific apparatuses, ultrasonic meters), and it is in these indirect expressions that we might find one understanding of how gas makes itself audible. For, whilst the gas in Quintero Bay did not directly press upon our senses, it did exert itself upon other materials in ways that we were able to experience. Through the chill in the water, the absence of fish, the audible vibrations in the pipeline’s components, and the formation of frost on the outside of pipes, we can understand gas to have ‘spoken’ and to have made itself heard.
But these ‘once-removed’ presses upon human senses are just one way in which we might understand the gas to be vocal. Whilst there may of course be many kinds of gaseous expression that are beyond human ability to perceive (as vital materialists we are aware that we may only be privy to a fraction of a material’s utterances), there are further means by which we might understand the gas in Quintero Bay to have a wider perceivable vocabulary than simple expressions upon direct material neighbors. As we arrived in Quintero Bay, we rapidly became aware of gas’s presence without ever touching the sea, without hearing any vibrations, and without seeing any frost. Rather, gas made itself known through the presence of a vast complex of pipes; through gas company plaques on gates and fences; through guarded barriers to entry. It declared its existence through large yellow signs warning us of its dangers, through personnel in red jumpsuits and plastic hardhats, in the enormous ships delivering the gas to shore, and through the giant concrete gasholders that dominate this section of the bay. Gas spoke in the way that it gathered around itself a complex and contingent collection of heterogeneous parts. As Lorraine Daston puts it, this “capacity to call […] a society of things into existence is as much a part of a thing’s thingness, of its reverberations in the world, as its material properties like weight and chemical composition”3. In other words, the ability to rally a diverse assemblage of people, materials, technologies, ideas, and things into being is as much a material vocal expression as the visual allure of a glove, or the observable formation of frost on the outside of a pipe.
But what is it about gas that demands the formation of such a complex assemblage? Whilst gas undoubtedly has other influential qualities, one significant aspect of its communicativeness lies in its destructive vitality. Gas’s expressiveness through its capacities to expand, ignite and explode is a key motivator in the calling together of this diverse attentive community. People, pipes, gates and gasholders are drawn into a constant performance that is predicated upon the imperative of securely containing gas and preventing it from expressing its destructive capacities. This performance takes considerable effort, particularly in the face of the geological instability that characterizes this region of Chile. Indeed, during our visit I was struck by just how much work was undertaken to ensure that the pipes retain their integrity in the face of the ground’s unpredictable movements. Far from the subterranean being a space of protection (as in many infrastructural systems elsewhere in the world), the underground here in Puchuncavi is a site of vulnerability that threatens to tear steel apart. Pipes are consequently not buried; they are suspended in protective cradles above the ground, and the entire infrastructure is supported by vast arrays of shock absorbers. As such, what initially appeared to be a rigid and stable infrastructure revealed itself to be a flexible assemblage that speaks of the extreme efforts required to prevent gas from realizing its explosive capacities.
Rather than understanding this assemblage to be predicated upon the strategic silencing of gas through inhibiting its explosive agency however, we might instead understand gas to speak of itself within these formations. For through the signs, the restricted areas, and the arrays of shock absorbers, gas communicates its destructive potential. And in so doing, it speaks of another aspect of its role within Puchuncavi’s fraught environment; that in spite of the constant work done to contain it, its mere presence presents significant risks to the humans, animals, materials, and things that populate and constitute this troubled ecosystem.
It is interesting to consider why such a community has formed around this particular aspect of gas’s potential environmentally damaging vitality however, and not around its thermal impacts upon the maritime environment. Indeed, the question of how objects come to acquire certain ‘powers of engagement’ through which they encourage the formation of publics is currently a source of academic debate4. However, in this instance there seem to be certain forms of silencing that are taking place. For example, when pressed about the environmental impacts of gas within Quintero Bay, our guide (a spokesperson from the gas company), claimed there to be practically no negative ecological impacts of gas’s commercial exploitation. Indeed, by his account, the gas company in question was one of the area’s most environmentally sensitive organizations. Whilst in relative terms this might be the case (it seems hard to equate the discharge of cold seawater with the illicit dumping of radioactive materials), gas’s chilling exertions upon seawater received no mention, despite the claims of local residents and a distinct absence of fish. Admittedly, within this complex assemblage where copper, mercury, gas, water, and organic bodies collide, it may be difficult to attribute singular blame for the ecological crisis that currently grips Puchuncavi’s maritime environment. But gas coolly speaks of its role in this ecosystem, and its utterances have not been completely stifled. For, at the very least, it has drawn me, my computer, and my keyboard into conversation with it. It has forced me to contemplate it and it has compelled me to write. And in that, gas has spoken.
1 Jane Bennett (2010) “Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things” London: Duke University Press
2 The smell often associated with natural gas is the result of an artificial additive. Natural gas typically has no natural odor, and the gas in this part of the system is not odorized.
3 Lorraine Daston (2004) “The Glass Flowers” In: Daston, L. (Ed) “Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science” New York: Zone Books (p. 228)
4 Noortje Marres & Javier Lezaun (Eds). (2009) “Materials and Devices of the Public: An Introduction” [Special Issue] Economy & Society 40:4