By Y S CHAN
THE government’s policy on the use of natural gas for vehicles (NGV) needs an overhaul.
Taxi drivers in the Klang Valley who use NGVs say the number of stations offering natural gas is declining and is costing them too much off the road downtime to refill.
Having driven taxis from 2000-2010, I can relate to their frustrations.
My first two taxis Enviro 2000s, custom-built in France for Petronas, and fully dedicated to run solely on NGV.
A round trip from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca would require refuelling at Senawang on the return leg.
On one occasion, the station stopped selling gas as its stock was depleted. I was in a predicament as the next NGV station was at KLIA, unreachable with a near empty gas tank. Running out of fuel would incur the inconvenience and cost of using a tow truck.
Without seeking permission, I managed to transfer some gas from the station to my taxi, as the pressure of my vehicle’s gas cylinders was lower.
I then drove slowly without air-conditioning back to Kuala Lumpur. Upon reaching the NGV station after the Sungei Besi toll plaza, the feeling was like reaching shore after drifting at sea.
When a dispute arose between Petronas and the cab company appointed to operate Enviro 2000 premier taxis, drivers who had earlier refused to hand over the vehicles to the owner were forced to do so when they were barred from refuelling NGV.
From 2004-2010, I drove a Proton Iswara taxi running on bi-fuel. I would switch to petrol just before calling it a day and start the engine the next morning using the same fuel.
After warming up the engine, I would switch to NGV, which cost much less than petrol, as it
was heavily subsidised and fixed at 68 sen per litre for 18 years. It was increased to RM1.05 from Oct 1 last year.
But very often, I would run out of gas and had to use petrol because NGV stations are few are far between, and there was the daunting sight with taxis waiting in a long queue.
Those in a rush would just have to refuel another time and run on petrol after finishing the gas.
For the decade I drove taxis, I recorded every trip, including the waiting time at NGV stations.
Unlike liquid fuel which can be filled to the brim, compressed natural gas can only be refuelled up to 50- to 70-percent capacity when pressure is low, and transfer of gas from station to vehicle took a lenghty period.
For a Proton Iswara taxi with a standard gas tank, it was rare to pay more than RM10 for refuelling at the old NGV price. The gas cylinder would have to be almost empty and gas pressure at the station very high, which can be damaging.
Apart from low gas pressure, long queues at NGV stations were also the result of many drivers refuelling when their gas cylinders were half-full and they paid less than RM5 for refuelling.
At that time, I thought an effective way to shorten queues was to introduce a minimum charge of RM8 per refuelling.
On average, taxi drivers spend more than an hour for refuelling twice a day, including the time driving to and waiting at the stations.
Over the years, I came across many verbal and written complaints on the shortage of NGV stations but did not join in the protests as I knew the reasons.
Firstly, many Petronas stations are located away from the 2,583km long high pressure natural gas transmission pipeline in Peninsular Malaysia.
Specialised trucks have to be used to transport the gas and any irregularity of supply or demand would cause the station to run out of NGV, which was common.
Most Petronas station operators declined to provide NGV as profit is minimal. The long line of taxis is an obstruction and deters other motorists from refuelling petrol or diesel.
And it would not be profitable for other oil companies to sell NGV due to the high cost of laying the gas pipeline or installing gas compression equipment at the station.
As such, it would be futile for taxi drivers or the public to call on Petronas not to “monopolise” the sale of NGV but open to other oil companies, as there are simply no takers.
In a way, Klang Valley taxi drivers are lucky. In Penang, there is not a single NGV station on the island.
But natural gas is abundant in Malaysia, exporting more than 33 billion cubic metres annually and ranked number 13 in the world.
Foreigners would expect the majority of motor vehicles in this country, including lorries and buses, running on NGV as it is the cheapest and cleanest burning fossil fuel.
For the past 30 years, protecting our national cars and promoting public transport were contradictory policies that have got us nowhere.
Similarly, the policy on NGV has led to taxi drivers suffering, and owners who had spent several thousand ringgit to install NGV kits in their private cars are regretting the move.
Without a clear national fuel policy, NGV will remain another white elephant.