November 15 2008
T&T Newsday Editorial
If the Government is so intent on having citizens use Compressed Natural Gas, Ministers should start by converting their own vehicles to CNG. Speaking in the Senate last Thursday on the issue, Minister in the Finance Ministry Mariano Browne was very gung-ho about all the benefits that would accrue to consumers and the wider society through CNG conversion: fewer emissions, less wear and tear on engines, fewer oil changes, and reduction in engine noise. If this is so, then Mr Browne and his colleagues need to take the lead in installing conversion kits into their new vehicles purchased at low interest rates thanks to their standing as Members of Parliament.
Presumably, this conversion will not make re-sale of their vehicles harder when the time comes to do so. Given that only one percent of vehicles in Trinidad and Tobago use CNG, however, this may be an issue. And that tiny percentage also raises another question: why, if the advantages of CNG are so many, haven’t more people converted to it? It may be that most drivers aren’t aware of the benefits listed by Mr Browne. It may be that, even if they are, most people don’t care about these advantages.
Certainly, helping the environment will not motivate most Trinidadians, who happily throw bottles, paper, and other litter out of their vehicles onto the roadside. The prospect of fewer oil changes is also not a great incentive, given that the cost of installing a CNG kit is between $9,000 to $10,000, and will reportedly drop only to $6,000 even after Government subsidies.
Even if the number of oil changes is reduced by half, it will still take 60 oil-and-filter changes to recoup that outlay, or more than four years. But money isn’t the only cost, or even the main cost, attached to CNG use. There’s also time. Motorists would have noted the long lines that CNG users have to endure in order to fill up. Until the Government can give assurance that these waiting times will be significantly reduced, no amount of monetary or car performance incentives will persuade motorists to convert.
Minister Browne, however, could promise only two additional stations in the next 18 months and conversion of the two existing stations to “fast fill”. This is not only inadequate in itself but, given Government’s record of failed deadlines, will probably not happen in less than three or four years.
In any case, more gas stations isn’t the answer, because at peak times there are lines even at the normal pumps where a fill-up generally takes just a minute or two. Only if the CNG technology allows a similar fill-up time will motorists be willing to change. And then questions arise as to the costs to taxpayers of that technology, the average number of visits per week to the gas station for CNG users as compared to petroleum users, and so on. Added to that is the question of safety: is the probability of a CNG tank exploding in the case of an accident as low as that of a standard gas tank? Prime Minister Patrick Manning has given this reassurance, without saying which expert told him so. And Mr Manning certainly seems to think CNG a major issue, since it was negative comments on this issue during a newscast that sent him down to a radio station to make a complaint in person. Perhaps he will therefore be the first to convert PM1 to CNG.