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World Perspective | MIDEAST

Cairo's Drive to Switch to Natural Gas

Egyptian taxi and bus operators cut costs and pollution by converting their vehicles.

January 16, 1998|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — A dusty, smoggy agglomeration of 16 million people and 1.2 million vehicles tightly squeezed into a narrow valley along the Nile, Greater Cairo is hardly the poster child of the environmental movement.

Mornings bring a pale, acrid haze that blots out buildings and burns the lungs. Clothes left on balconies for just a few hours acquire a patina of soot and grime. Levels of dangerous lead in the air are among the world's highest.

Lately, however, the city's taxi and bus drivers have been lining up to convert gasoline engines to run on CNG--compressed natural gas--a cheaper, cleaner-burning fuel that emits 86% less carbon monoxide and 83% fewer hydrocarbons than gasoline.

In just two years, Cairo has become a world leader in the number of privately owned vehicles running on CNG--with more than 5,000 on the road--and experts say the number of natural-gas taxis, minibuses and full-size buses in Egypt is about to skyrocket.

It's a positive trend for a city short on environmental good news. Health authorities love the switch to CNG because it helps clear the air. The government loves it because Egypt has abundant reserves of natural gas, and by substituting natural gas in vehicles, more of the country's scarce petroleum can be exported to earn hard currency.

But most of the enthusiasm is coming from the minibus and taxi drivers, who say it cuts their fuel costs by more than 50%.

At the Mosadak filling station in Giza's Dokki district, station manager Mustafa Rabia said his technicians convert up to 20 taxis and minibuses a day to run on CNG in addition to gasoline.

"I heard from people who converted that it was a lot cleaner," Mohammed Ezzat, a gray-haired veteran of the taxi ranks, said as he lined up to have his gas cylinder refilled at a station. "But the main reason I converted is to save money."

"If it all sounds too good to be true, in this case, it actually is" true, said James L. Goggin, a project officer in the environment office of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is working with the Cairo Transport Authority and the Oil Ministry to promote CNG for buses as part of the Cairo air improvement project.

Emissions, especially from buses using heavy-duty diesels, are the chief culprit in central Cairo's air problems, he said.

Mahmoud Badran, operations manager at Natural Gas Vehicles Co. of Egypt--a joint venture of Amoco, Egypt Gas and the Egyptian energy services company Enppi--said he has been overwhelmed by the natural-gas craze. But it's going to get much bigger: He said he expects the government to require all taxis and minibuses to run on CNG within three years.

Taxi and minibus owners are quickly embracing it because they can save $70 a month on fuel, a significant sum for drivers who typically net only about $300 a month after paying for gasoline and maintenance.

A cubic meter of CNG, roughly equivalent to a quarter of a gallon of gasoline, costs 13 cents, compared with 29 cents for gasoline. Converting to run on natural gas costs about $1,500, paid in installments. Within two years, the conversion pays for itself, owner-driver Ahmad Galai, 28, explained as attendants filled his black-and-white Peugeot taxi with a tankful of CNG.

Badran, who uses CNG in his own car, said the economics make sense for drivers who travel a lot. A drawback is the 165-pound steel cylinder that goes in the trunk to store the CNG.

Egypt has 10 stations where CNG is sold, and the number is expected to rise to 25 in two years and to 85 by 2010, he said.

Before making the switch, Egyptian officials visited Southern California, one of the main centers for the technology.

There are about 60,000 natural-gas vehicles in the U.S., said Ronald H. Smith, general manager of the NGV Production Center for the Southern California Gas Co., and about 10,000 of those are in California.

Maha Abul Hassan of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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