The CNG conundrum

Print edition : September 01, 2001

Delhi awaits with trepidation the September 30 deadline for the conversion of its public transport vehicles to the CNG mode.

AS the Supreme Court imposed a deadline of September 30 for the conversion of the diesel-run bus fleet and other commercial vehicles in Delhi into the Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) mode approaches, the chaos and disarray in the public transport sector in the National Capital Region (NCR)seems to be growing day by day. The deadline implies that vehicles not converted to the CNG mode will not be allowed to ply after September 30. Given the current situation, the majority of vehicles come in this category.

At a CNG filling station in New Delhi on August 12. The Delhi and Central governments cite infrastructural constraints to plead their inability to switch to the CNG mode before September 30, the deadline set by the Supreme Court.-JOHN McCONNICO/AP

The "politics of pollution", coupled with the complete lack of preparedness of the two governments - the Congress (I) government and the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre - has only exacerbated the loss of direction that characterises Delhi's transport system. The majority of the people in Delhi, particularly the working people and the economically weaker sections, are dependent on public transport.

The last time panic spread on this front was on March 31, 2001, when an earlier deadline set as per an apex court directive of July 28, 1998, expired. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit then told Frontline that there had not been sufficient time to implement the court order (Frontline, April 27, 2001). Transporters went on strike, and the hapless commuters found themselves at the receiving end. This time, two strikes have been called by the transport unions as the deadline approaches, and no solution is in sight. The debate now is whether any other alternative clean fuel, such as Low Sulphur Diesel (LSD), can be used along with CNG. One opinion is that the objective is to get Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel (ULSD) eventually, but until then LSD should be an alternative. But for environmental activists nothing other than CNG is acceptable.

As transporters as well as the two governments plead their inability to switch over to the CNG mode, citing infrastructural constraints - not all of which is attributed to CNG per se - it remains to be seen how the deadline will be kept. Long queues of autorickshaws, which constitute the bulk of CNG-converted vehicles, buses and even some private cars, form the usual scene outside CNG filling stations. CNG admittedly, is the cleanest of all fuels and is much cheaper too, compared to petrol or diesel. It is the question of "supply" that has hit transporters hard. Those who have switched to CNG find the supply erratic and those who have not are sceptical of making an investment when the future does not look too good. With the governments playing a different tune now, and environment and energy specialists making conflicting claims about CNG's role in improving air quality in Delhi, the long-term prospects of CNG as a fuel seem uncertain.

Despite their rhetoric about environmental commitments, both governments have realised that meeting the deadline would be a Herculean task unless the use of alternative clean fuels is allowed. It is here that various interpretations of the recommendations of the Bhure Lal Committee - also known as the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) and set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests for the NCR - as well as the court order of July 1998 have come up, adding to the confusion. One interpretation is that the court had not directed that autorickshaws and taxis switch to CNG. But the owners of many such vehicles have already done so in order to benefit from the financial incentives offered and also because CNG is cheaper than petrol or diesel. But the difficulties with regard to supply were not foreseen.

Moreover, various representations given to the EPCA by the State and Central governments, transporters' associations, expert bodies such as the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) and the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, on the one hand and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) on the other have made things murkier.

The transport unions called for a strike on August 28 to demand an extension of the deadline. This was the second time in the month - the first time being on August 10 - that all commercial vehicles were to stay off the roads.

The court had in July 1998 directed, among other things, the replacement of all post-1990 autorickshaws and taxis with new vehicles running on clean fuels, withdrawal of eight-year-old buses except those running on CNG or other clean fuels, conversion of the city's entire bus fleet (both Delhi Transport Corporation and private) to the single fuel mode (using CNG) and the setting up of more CNG supply units. These directions were passed on the basis of the EPCA recommendations.

The court had, in one of its orders dated March 26, 2001, directed the Bhure Lal Committee to examine whether LSD should be regarded as clean fuel and whether buses be permitted to run on that. It was submitted at that point that ULSD having a sulphur content of not more than 0.001 per cent (10 parts per million) was available in some countries. Hence the committee was next asked to submit a report indicating which fuel can be regarded as "clean". The court asked interested parties to make representations to the Committee on that aspect, setting out points with regard to which fuel does not cause pollution and is not injurious to health. The report on clean fuels by the EPCA takes cognisance of several representations made by transport associations and expert bodies as well as the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG).

Ram Naik, Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, seems to have thrown in the towel as far as ensuring the supply of CNG is concerned. In its representation to the EPCA, the Ministry builds a case that is clearly tilted towards LSD. It states that diesel with 0.05 per cent sulphur content and unleaded petrol with 1 per cent benzene and 0.05 per cent sulphur were being supplied at present in the NCR and this was equivalent to Bharat II (which conforms to Euro II emission norms) fuel and also that it compares favourably with fuel quality available in Japan, the United States and the best quality fuel in South-East Asia.

The MoPNG concurred that ULSD was used in a limited way in Sweden, Germany and Switzerland. But problems relating to trade and logistics and the absence of matching engine technology stood in the way of it being a cost-effective option. The allocation of CNG to the transport sector could be enhanced only by diverting it from other sectors. Currently the supply is only through the Hazira-Bijaipur-Jagdishpur(HBJ) pipe-line traversing the States of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and any disruption in this could lead to the non-availability of gas for single-fuel-mode buses. The Ministry also felt that particulate emission reduction using Bharat II compliant vehicles meet Bharat II norms. The same, the Ministry averred, should therefore be allowed leaving the choice to the customer. It also stated that CNG would be more expensive than petrol and diesel in the post-administered prices situation.

The EPCA found, upon examining the various steps taken subsequent to the court orders of July 1998 and March 2001, that the sulphur content both in petrol and diesel was at the most 0.05 per cent. There were 68 CNG dispensing stations as compared to nine in July 1998. There were 1,600 buses, 25,000 autorickshaws, and 10,000 cars, including 1,100 taxis, operating on CNG. There were 71 stations where CNG was provided by Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL). Commercial vehicles more than 15 years old and buses more than eight years old had been phased out.

The EPCA report, however, does not buy the MoPNG's contention that the conversion of the entire public transport fleet to CNG mode may not be sustainable in the medium or long term as it could affect other sectors dependent on the gas. The supply has to be enhanced to keep pace with the demand, the report states.

However, it has agreed that the current infrastructure for CNG distribution is proving to be a constraint because of the lack of compression capacity at the refuelling stations, poor distribution of refuelling stations across the city, and the holding back of investments until the demand built up.

The IGL has apparently informed the EPCA that the number of gas stations will go up to 90 by March 2002. The EPCA has suggested that these plans be implemented by both IGL and the MoPNG by December 2001 and that they ensure that in the future, distribution infrastructure stayed ahead of demand.

FOR commercial vehicles plying in areas of Delhi, where environmentally acceptable fuels may not be available, the report has recommended the use of diesel with 0.05 per cent sulphur content, which is compatible with Bharat II emission norms. This may be a "transitional fuel" and the period of its use should be as short as possible because of "adverse public health effects".

Bus manufacturers, for their part, have revealed to the EPCA that some of the 7,000-odd buses for which orders had been placed would not be ready by September 30, 2001. The reasons for the delay were the non-availability of CNG cylinders and the time taken for the building of the bus body.

Keeping in mind the fact that public transport could get disrupted once again as the deadline approaches, the EPCA report has stated that it was "unhappily constrained to recommend that existing diesel buses be allowed to operate beyond September 30, 2001 and this date may be fixed taking into account a reasonable period for delivery of chassis and two to three months for building of bodies. The bus manufacturers may be asked to provide their production schedule to meet the orders placed.'' The Delhi government has also been asked to build new inter-State bus terminals in north and south-west Delhi to curb pollution caused by the entry of inter-State buses. It has recommended financial incentives to bus operators purchasing new, retrofitted CNG buses.

Interestingly, oil companies, the Society for Indian Automobile Manufacturers, Telco, Ashok Leyland, the Delhi Transport Corporation, the Delhi Contract Bus Association, the DTC Private Bus Operators Welfare Association, and the Indian Association of Tour Operators have all pleaded for the use of 0.05 per cent sulphur diesel in vehicular engines compatible with Euro II norms. It was largely agreed that it was a clean fuel. Ranjan K. Bose, Senior Fellow, TERI, submitted that it will not be practical to use CNG as a single-mode-fuel and to maintain and augment the bus fleet.

R.K. Pachauri, Director-General, TERI told Frontline that the trend the world over was to move towards ULSD while seven to eight years back, CNG had been the preferred fuel. He explained that sulphur in fuels could be removed by means of changes in the fuel production technology. He cited the example of the United Kingdom government which got refineries to produce ULSD by subsidising costs. He claimed that imported ULSD would still work out cheaper than CNG. He said that TERI was doing a study for the government, which involved measuring the emission norms of buses with different fuels under "operating conditions".

The CSE, which has been pushing for CNG, said that the Ministry was trying to promote the currently prevalent diesel in Delhi, the variety with 0.05 per cent sulphur, as clean fuel. The CSE pointed out that no plans to import or produce ULSD have been spelt out in the Ministry's representation to the Bhure Lal Committee.

The CSE argues that studies done by it and the Central Pollution Control Board have indicated that if all buses were converted to CNG mode, a substantial reduction in pollution from particulates - the main pollutant in Delhi's air - will occur but that will alone still not ensure air quality. Experts at the CSE say that there is an all-round effort to discredit CNG and that even if the other "environmentally acceptable" fuels are used, the government will have to "work towards it". In a report released this August, called "The Smokescreen of Lies - Myths and Facts about CNG", the CSE builds up a case in favour of using CNG.

Evidently, the last word on CNG is yet to be said. The definition of a clean fuel, in the words of the EPCA, needs to be made in the context of the quality of the fuels available, the availability of emission control technologies, prevailing environmental conditions and the existing knowledge of health effects of air pollutants.

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