November 2022, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I am sipping evening tea with Dario, an electrician from Ukraine, one of the 25 seafarers working on board a the liquified natural gas (LNG) carrier I have been living and conducting ethnographic fieldwork on for almost a month. During this time, I have been following and observing the daily life and work routines of Dario and the rest of the crew members as well as having conversations with all of them. This evening Dario and I are talking about LNG. I am asking if and how it is different for him to work with this type of cargo than with other liquid bulks like oil, which he has worked with earlier. Dario is eager to answer my question, and he starts talking generally about his role in the transport of LNG. Enabling the transport of LNG over long distances gives him indeed a sense of pride. First, Dario is proud of his own expertise in working with LNG carriers which are different and more technically advanced than other bulk carriers. He did not gain this expertise in maritime school, but through work experience within the developing sector of gas transport in the shipping industry. Secondly, since LNG is difficult to control because it can shift from liquid to vapor and gas and back to liquid, those in charge of its transport must be very good at monitoring and controlling these changes. However, what is making Dario most proud is that through his work, he argues, he is helping make Europe energy independent on Russia and so he is contributing to democracy.
We live in a time of energy crisis
The last words of Dario stuck in my head. They did make a lot of sense. In fact, we live in a time of energy crisis. Energy markets have been shrinking already since 2021 due to higher competition, overconsumption, production cuts, insufficient storage capacity, and poor redistribution systems. The crisis also means that the price of natural gas has reached a record high pushing for inflation and overall impoverishment of citizens and a forced re-definition and re-dimension of common people’s basic needs. This situation is worsening due to the dragging conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the weaponization of energy infrastructures by Russia, the redistribution of international resources to support Ukraine’s military, and the tightness of regulations around using hydrocarbon revenues for the greater good. In the years to come, energy prices and inflation will keep growing, governments will adopt drastic rationing measures, many smaller industries will have to close, thus giving more power to larger producers that will influence legislation to their interests. The situation will exacerbate power imbalance and social inequality across countries.
In the Western world, Europe is particularly vulnerable. The European Commission’s strategy to decarbonize Europe and its vision for a climate-neutral economy by 2050, fully supported by governments and policy makers is creating serious obstacles to negotiate long-terms contracts with large energy suppliers around the world. Since Europe is unwilling to open new gas extraction sites at home, it is highly dependent on foreign supplies and vulnerable to market fluctuations. This is why a key objective of the EU is to ensure stable access to liquid gas markets for energy independence and security. In this context, LNG is seen not only as a solution to enhance the diversity of gas supply and improve energy security, but also to ensure a smoother transition to a greener economy and to the full use of renewable forms of energy (Lindstad et alii 2020).
LNG, a controversial energy resource.
LNG is indeed a strategic key source of energy. Considering Europe’s current decarbonization strategy, people are made to believe that LNG is the best transitional form of energy, a “greener” non-renewable alternative form of energy. Indeed, LNG is very efficient – in comparison with coal and oil – and can be used in most of the existing infrastructures running on fossil fuel, in contrast to renewable energies which need ad hoc infrastructural apparatus. However, the destructive practices by which most of the natural gas is extracted, like hydraulic fracturing (fracking), are often left out of the picture.
Nevertheless, LNG is indeed an appealing and valuable energy resource as it can to a certain degree enable a “smoother” shift into renewable forms of energy using existing infrastructure and, in addition, can make Europe more energy secure and independent. LNG is a controversial energy resource used in practices of “green politics”. Bruno Latour talks about “green politics” in vision of the new climate regime and the many strategies materialized in legislations, fiscal regulations, and infrastructural projects many countries in Europe are adopting to make energy transition possible. What makes politics “green”, according to Latour, is the pervading, repetitive, almost formulaic statements about green shift, green technology, and green energy in the broader discourse of climate change and energy transition.
In fact, whether LNG is really green, a little green or not at all green, everybody is crazy about it right now, competing for its access and making the energy market implode. Since Russia’s historical export to Europe has been heavily sanctioned and the gas flowing into Europe via pipelines has been drastically reduced, the only way to get gas into Europe is through shipping of LNG in tanker ships from other-than-Russia exporting countries around the world.
Automated shifts in the maritime: LNG carriers, LNG technology, and its carers.
Tanker ships that transport liquified natural gas are called LNG carriers. The number of these ships has boomed in the last 10 years. Major and middle size shipping companies specialized in the transport of hydrocarbons and other liquid bulks are now investing in LNG carriers. They are constructing new ships with safer, more efficient technology. As part of my postdoctoral project, which investigates how the fast automation and digitalization of systems on board LNG tankers change perceptions of work, identity of the seafarers, and create at the same time possibilities but also challenges in many aspects of everyday labor and life on board ships, I had the privilege to conduct ethnographic fieldwork on board two LNG carriers in 2022. The 300-meter ships were sailing across the Atlantic Ocean from regassification plants in Europe to Storage facilities in the USA.
LNG is different from other cargoes as it is “invisible”. Locked into tanks that are never opened unless every 5 to 7 years at dry dock, LNG is unequivocally present and pervasive. In relation to the world of freight and container shipping, other scholars have conceptualized shipping containers as “material objects whose embedded properties change not only depending on the cargo they are carrying, but also through encounters with different climatic conditions” (Leivestad, 2022: 206). The constantly fluctuating properties of LNG under the uncontrollable forces of nature, like sea, weather, and temperature, create a special engagement between the crewmembers and this form of energy.
Since LNG is shifting properties all the time – from liquid to vapor to gas to liquid -, it comes with instruments that monitor these changes on its tanker ships. These are innovative machines, like for instance the reliquification plant, which is a large system of machines able to reliquefy vapor from boil off (BOG) of LNG in cargo tanks. LNG carriers also come with kilometers of piping system, thousands of sensors, and several hybrid engines, which can use different types of fuels and can be powered by electrical batteries. These hybrid ships are considered and labeled “greener” in the maritime world. Even though LNG technology is exciting, is sensitive and vulnerable to unpredictable factors, like weather conditions or updates installed to computer systems. The seafarers working with LNG machines are aware of all these problems. In fact, the special engagement, care, and responsibility they have for LNG extends to the instruments they use to monitor, transport, discharge, and load LNG. Under the pressure to complete operations more efficiently and in the shortest time possible, seafarers must also obey the new environmental regulations – like those under SOLAS – and satisfy cargo owners who require cost-efficient fuel usage.
Most LNG ships today are classified by IMO according to MASS (Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship) definition, as level 1 (out of 4) autonomous, which means that while some systems and processes are automated, seafarers are still needed on board to operate, control, and maintain them. Nevertheless, fast automation of systems is calling for a drastic reduction of personnel on board ships. For instance, on most ships today you find the Electronic Chart Display and Information System, called ECDIS which has almost totally replaced the use of paper charts and has made many navigation functions automatic. Sensors and alarm and software systems make cargo operations, loading and unloading, fuel usage, berthing, emergency systems, air, and water supplies systems self-regulating and automated to a degree. This automation shift in the maritime industry has drastically reduced the number of seafarers on board ships to 17-30 today compared with the 1950s where you could find cargo ships with up to 80 crewmembers (Stepien 2023).
Still, a ship is not a very complicated or advanced machine besides all the sensors monitoring performances and algorithms rendering operations semi-automated. The basic mechanical principles of marine propulsion have remained the same for 200 years and so do the basic machines that run and keep a ship floating. What has really changed over the years is the type of fuel which a ship uses and the rate at which the ship, or better put, the ship’s crew, carry on operations, like loading and discharging cargo. In the face of accelerated capitalistic needs (Eriksen and Schober 2018), the quantity of cargo per ship has also grown enormously, creating unsustainable monsters (Latour 1996; 2021) like the Ever Given, 400-meter long and 22000 TEU, one of the largest ship containers in the world which was stuck in the Suez Canal for 6 days in 2021.
Even though technology has developed enormously enabling huge volumes of LNG to be shipped across continents, marine officers, machinists, and engineers remain the main carers for LNG machines. Their responsibilities are structured in such a way that the vast number of machines and systems on board the ship – and the responsibility for them – are redistributed among single individuals by rank, expertise, and level of experience. This organization constitutes partly but fundamentally the hierarchy on board ships. Nevertheless, due to the “novelty” of working with carrying LNG, no matter how individuals are expert or ranked, it is often through teamwork and mutual help that problems are solved. LNG and its machines are indeed catalysts for the establishment of new social relations which involve collaboration, support, and mutual help.
In fact, for seafarers, relating to human experiences is easier than relating to manuals and standardized procedures on how to conduct “optimal” reparations. Crewmembers working both on deck or in the machine department would agree on the fact that both LNG and its machinery are unpredictable and that there is still not yet enough knowledge about the behavior or this mutable form of energy and the consequences it has on the technology and machines it uses. In fact, they experience fluctuations every day. Sensors and automated functions monitoring the cargo often do not give a reason why LNG is expanding, contracting, boiling off, or behaving the way it does. Therefore, learning happens by means of human communication and the exchanging of experiences. Sharing past experiences on similar or different LNG carriers with same or different machines helps broaden the spectrum of possible solutions to problems which might not be recorded in the user manuals, for instance.
Conclusion: Conducting ethnographic fieldwork on board LNG carriers
Ships are contained, isolated, self-sufficient, highly hierarchical, and very organized villages. This containment makes them into attractive sites for ethnographic observations. Since the shipping world is difficult to access and relatively little known, there are many understudied yet revealing ways in which seafarers relate to the cargo they monitor, care for, transfer and transport it around the world. These relationships between crew members, ship and cargo open an investigation of unexpected social dynamics that can be at the same time conflictual, generative, and contradictory. Borrowing from Latour, ships can be conceived as “cultural objects” (1996) because they break down the object-subject, nature-culture dichotomies. In fact, ships are both technologically advanced material things which are highly dependent on humans but also unpredictable and respondent to often unforeseeable and sometimes invisible factors. They have in a way their own defuse agency and they are often object of anthropomorphizing practices that give them strong individuality and agency.
In addition to being by nature unpredictable, a ship carrying LNG is even more unruly because of the constantly changing nature of the cargo that triggers unexpectedly all infrastructural systems -mechanical and digital – around it. LNG is an “alive cargo”, the captain of one of the ships told me, this is why Dario was particularly proud of being able through his work to control and contain the behaviors of LNG. In practical terms, the complex relationship between all the crewmembers and LNG is manifested in the way the seafarers monitor the cargo, maintain and repair the machines, the way they plan time and space around the navigation routes, the way they perform safety procedures, and the way they incessantly record and log performances and parameters of the behavior or the LNG. How seafarers talk about and perceive the energy cargo they are responsible for constructs a picture around their lives so entangled with LNG and gives another powerful narrative around LNG. In addition, seafarers play a fundamental yet invisible role in the global and politically loaded LNG discourse today.
LNG as world demanded, market inflated contested resource, obtained by destructive extraction practices, and used in transitional semi- green energy narratives, fits very well in highly political and contradictory discourses. The controversial impacts of LNG are not only ecological (increasing of hydraulic fracking for the extraction of gas) and not only political (making LNG poor countries more dependent to LNG exporting countries, like the US, and thus more vulnerable and politically controllable). On a micro level, on a level of social relations, LNG can also have controversial impacts on the nature of work on board LNG carriers where innovative technology draws more attention than humans, expectations and workloads are becoming strenuous, and traditional hierarchies are reshuffled making conflicts arise. So far, one of the greatest paradoxes of LNG is reflected in the role seafarers working on LNG carriers play. In face of the global importance of LNG, when so much depends on them right now, they yet remain uncredited, unspoken of and invisible.
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 LNG is natural gas, predominantly methane, converted to liquid form for ease of storage or transport. The liquefaction process happens at around -162 °C. As a liquid, LNG takes up around 600 times less volume than gas at standard atmospheric pressure, which facilitates its transportation over long distances without the need of pipelines, generally in specially designed ships or road tankers.
 Aksjekaffe podcast Episode 94 Øystein Kalleklev «Flex LNG» 18.01.2022.
 In line with the European Green Deal and the EU’s 2030 energy and climate targets. https://climate.ec.europa.eu/eu-action/climate-strategies-targets/2050-long-term-strategy_en
 Except for Norway who is one of the largest gas exporter countries in the world and the most important source of pipeline gas imports to Europe right now.
 In fact, countries that have access to LNG import terminals and liquid gas markets are far more resilient to possible supply interruptions than those that are dependent on a single gas supplier, cargoes of LNG are available from many different supplier countries worldwide and finally, the global LNG market is undergoing dynamic developments.
 Produces 40% less CO2 than coal and 30% less than oil. Methane burns also more efficiently than coal.
 For some of the many examples of destructive outcomes of gas extraction see: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/fracking-boom-tied-to-methane-spike-in-earths-atmosphere; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/14/fracking-causing-rise-in-methane-emissions-study-finds; https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/08/study-fracking-prompts-global-spike-atmospheric-methane
 Opposition and critique, in turn, use the term green washing (Latour 2007; Klein 2020).
 Around 40% of all pipeline imports to the EU have been controlled by Russia in the past years.
 USA, Qatar, Australia and Nigeria to name a few most important exporting countries.
 My postdoc project is part of a larger collaborative project with title “Automation shift in the maritime sector of the oil and gas industry: assessing risk and safety, protecting labor” ASMOG. https://www.uib.no/en/asmog
 Each segment of the journey from destination to destination, including time for loading and discharging, takes about two weeks.
 Safety of life at sea (SOLAS) is an international treaty that regulates all aspects of commercial ships with focus on safety for all ship operations https://www.imo.org/en/About/Conventions/Pages/International-Convention-for-the-Safety-of-Life-at-Sea-(SOLAS),-1974.aspx
 Even though studies on simulation training on board LNG have existed since the late 1970s (Blanchard 1976 and 1978), there is surprisingly still a lack of training on LNG shipping machines and simulations at maritime schools (https://safety4sea.com/cm-addressing-training-requirements-on-lng-fueled-ships/.
 The role of the United States is increasingly important in the EU gas supply. Imports from the US are increasing enormously. As part of the Russia-Ukraine war and the related weaponisation of energy supply, the Russian share of pipeline imports has fallen dramatically. Between January and September 2022, the largest LNG exporters to the EU were the United States (44%), Russia (17%) and Qatar (13%).