By Paul Cochrane for Executive magazine
Congestion in Beirut has reached the point of crisis. Traffic levels have become intolerable, with jams and “road rage” a part of everyday life. There is little public transport and, as a result, no feasible initiatives to encourage people to give up driving. The situation is clearly unsustainable.
Oil prices are hovering around $100 per barrel these days and the cost of fuel has soared in Lebanon over the past year. Consumers are feeling the effects on their wallets, compounding the hurt on their lungs from the amount of pollution generated by the 1.6 million cars in the country, some 76 percent of which are more than 10 years old, and 50 percent more than 20 years old.
In a recent study by the American University of Beirut’s Air Quality Research Unit, “fine” air particles in the capital were found to be three to four times higher than World Health Organization standards, while the unit noted that carbon emissions from vehicles posed a “serious risk to public health” and have “proven to be carcinogenic.” Indeed, environmentalists estimate that 60 to 70 percent of air pollution in the country is generated by vehicles.
So what is to be done? The traffic is detrimental to people’s health, mentally as well as physically, while with roughly 100,000 new and used cars sold every year, more and more carbon emitting vehicles are hitting Lebanese roads. Despite the rising costs of gasoline people have not been discouraged from driving, although there has been a noticeable shift over the past few years in the car market toward more fuel efficient compacts over larger vehicles.
There are options on the table but, in typical Lebanese political fashion, no common policy toward a workable solution. The plan proposed in 2010 by the Ministry of Energy and Water to introduce compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles has been opposed by the Parliamentary Energy and Public Works Committee, ostensibly over safety concerns.
A draft law to allow four-cylinder hybrid cars to be imported tax free has yet to be passed, the previous parliament having been too occupied with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to enact it and now, with no cabinet in place, the bill is gathering dust. In any case, the energy ministry is more pro-CNG than hybrid, citing CNG’s questionably better safety record than hybrid technology and dismissing hybrids as not suitable for Lebanon’s topography.
Meanwhile, car dealers are waiting in limbo over whether the draft laws will be passed and what this will mean for their business strategies. Dealerships, such as the industry’s representative body, the Automobile Importers Association (AIA), have serious objections to CNG and query the feasibility of introducing hybrids without financial incentives to encourage consumers away from cheaper traditional models. They also view the law as limited — it does not include, for instance, six cylinder hybrids.
On both sides there is ignorance of the way these alternative fuel technologies work, in some cases confusing CNG with Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and in others reiterating the myth that all hybrids need to be plugged into electric mains to charge up.
There is also an expectation that the free market will compel consumers to take up either CNG or hybrids despite the global precedent of government-assisted incentives to encourage citizens to switch to more environmentally friendly vehicles.
EXECUTIVE takes a look at the proposed policies, the pros and cons of CNG and hybrids, the investments needed and what is being done elsewhere in the world, and offers some realistic solutions to help clear the air and roads in Lebanon and change this unsustainable status quo.
The ministry’s case
In November 2010, the Ministry of Energy’s proposal for CNG was shot down by three out of four parliamentary experts, with the head of the Parliamentary Energy and Public Works Committee Mohammad Qabbani deeming the fuel un-safe, despite the ministry’s call for a re-evaluation of the criteria used.
“Our proposal was [for] CNG cars, which has not been accepted across the board,” said Cesar Abu Khalil, advisor to Gebran Bassil, caretaker Minister of Energy and Water. “I’m not sure why Qabbani took such a hostile position; the proposal is to allow the use of CNG — it is not obliging people to. We wanted to create an alternative fuel for consumers. Fuel costs have been increasing very fast, by $4 for 20 liters in less than six months, and has become unbearable for those on minimum wage and everyone else. We’ve been urging the Council of Ministers since 2009 to reduce taxes on fuel gasoline but to no avail.”
The ministry’s proposal is based on socio-economic and environmental grounds. CNG is some 40 percent cheaper than gasoline, which would help consumers financially and reduce the amount of gasoline fuel the country would have to import. Environmentally, CNG emits carbon dioxide levels that are 10 to 30 percent lower than gasoline, while emitting 27 times less nitroxide pollutants. CNG has been discussed in Lebanon over other natural gas options such as LPG or newcomer gas-to-liquids (GTL) due to its more extensive adoption worldwide.
In terms of safety, the ministry dismisses concerns that CNG is dangerous and not suitable for Lebanon, citing the fact that there are 12.5 million natural gas vehicles (NGVs) in use today worldwide, with the biggest users in Pakistan, Iran, Argentina, India and, slightly further down the list, Egypt.
“CNG is lighter than air, which means any leakages rise in the air; there are no spillages, and if ever this gas catches fire it burns high in the air, unlike LPG,” said Abu Khalil. He added that CNG cylinders undergo rigorous testing, are capable of withstanding penetration by a 30-caliber bullet without rupturing, are designed for a specific life span and only need to be inspected every three years or 58,000 kilometers.
According to documents given to EXECUTIVE by the ministry, data from the United States showed the vehicle injury rate of the 8,331 natural gas vehicles surveyed was 37 percent lower than gasoline vehicles and that there were no reported fatalities, compared with 1.28 deaths per 100 million miles for gasoline vehicles.
“For over three months we were searching for an accident related to CNG, but all accidents were due to gasoline and hybrids,” said Minister Bassil’s advisor Michel-Ange Medlej. “We are not against hybrids but want all the alternatives available for the consumer. The Lebanese consumer should be able to choose what they want their vehicle to run on.”
Rolling out CNG
The ministry is keen to emphasize CNG as an alternative fuel choice. They feel that market fundamentals will provide the incentives for consumers to convert vehicles to CNG and that fuel distributors will make a return on investment from installing CNG pumps at stations.
“The real subsidy is the fuel, as it is cheap and a retro conversion [of a car’s engine from gasoline to CNG] is around $2,000. The return on investment would be very quick,” said Abu Khalil. The advisors cited service taxi drivers as prime target users of CNG, given an average monthly fuel bill of some $600.
“The encouragement comes when you commercialize CNG. Service taxis, light vehicles and special vehicles are the users we want to attract to CNG,” said Medlej. “Most private owners will not opt for a change to CNG but if the fuel bill increases it will give the [impetus] to switch to CNG,” he added.
In terms of infrastructure, CNG would come from the Arab-Mashreq Gas Pipeline that enters Lebanon from Syria. With the prospect of Lebanon having gas in its territorial waters, this could be a further incentive for adopting CNG. “Why did Pakistan reach 2.5 million CNG cars? [Because] it is a natural gas producer and an oil importer,” said Medlej. “If we become a gas producing country, why not use CNG?”
Lebanese natural gas will not be coming anytime soon, however, and in the meantime gas stations would have to offer imported CNG to consumers if the law is passed. “It is around $300,000 in investment per pump to install CNG at an existing fuel station. That is nothing compared to the amounts of money paid by companies to build new gas stations, and as CNG is cheaper there will be a higher profit margin,” added Medlej. Others in the private sector, however, have cited concerns over the costs, saying that they can reach up to $500,000. While the advisors concede that demand will be related to the availability of CNG, they expect a gradual uptake of the fuel.
“It will take time. You can’t just flip a switch and change to have 500,000 CNG cars,” said Dany Samaha, advisor to minister Bassil. “CNG roll out will need quality control, procedures, employees and mechanics, but the law needs to [be passed] first and then we can address the private sector for investment. It will not take more than a year.”
With no incentives to consumers or financial assistance for fuel companies to install CNG pumps, the adoption of CNG will not impact the government’s financial budget, nor will the treasury lose out on taxes generated from CNG, confirmed Abu Khalil. While no parliament has been formed as of Executive going to print, the expected dominance of the upcoming cabinet by the former opposition March 8 coalition is considered a green light for the ministry’s plan, especially as it is in the hands of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). “We are optimistic [that] with the imminent change in government we will have the upper hand and not face all the hurdles faced in the last government, and that should be reflected in many other projects,” said Abu Khalil.
Opposition to CNG
CNG has been opposed not only by the parliamentary committee but also by car dealers. The AIA has opposed the move on safety grounds and dealerships are keener on introducing hybrid technology.
Opposition to the plan is also seen as politically motivated, with opponents even suggesting, off the record, that the energy ministry, which is in the hands of March 8’s FPM and allied to pro-Iranian Hezbollah, is pushing for CNG because of the Islamic Republic’s widespread adoption of the alternative fuel. If Lebanon hitched onto the CNG wagon, so the argument goes, this would result in preferential business deals with Iranian companies for gas conversion, infrastructure installation, rollout expertise and even importation of Iranian-made CNG vehicles. Indeed, Syria recently asked for Iran’s guidance in implementing CNG — Iran has converted 1.9 million vehicles to CNG and in the next four years aims to be a global leader in CNG stations and consumption.
On the other hand, sources close to the energy ministry say that the parliamentary committee’s decision was due in part to “ignorance” about CNG, confusing it with LPG. It is also said that the committee was influenced by car dealers and oil companies, both of which oppose CNG for commercial reasons; leading manufacturers do not produce CNG cars and the conversion would render many marketable attributes essentially obsolete, such as engine size and sound damping technology. It would also affect vehicles’ overall design, with CNG typically increasing a vehicle’s weight due to the tanks fitted in the trunk (although other options are available such as cylinders made of composite materials).
Oil companies would, of course, have less gasoline to market, even though they could sell CNG instead, but margins would be lower due to the limited options of where suppliers may obtain it. Costs are also cited as being prohibitive. On top of the cost of new pumps, CNG would also have to be far better regulated than gasoline, requiring more work by the fuel companies and regular governmental inspections.
The dealerships’ stance
Nabil Bazerji, managing director of GA Bazerji and Sons, the dealer for Suzuki, Lancia and Maserati, said, “CNG is something unrealistic for a country like Lebanon. Automotive sales will not be affected as mass production is not available at the majority of automotive brands, while adaptation of vehicles is done by specialized companies.”
Other dealers oppose CNG on similar grounds, citing market fundamentals. “When we were asked by the AIA whether we were interested in gas cars and [which] manufacturers produced them, we said it was not for us,” said Anthony Boukhater, deputy general manager of ANB Boukhater, dealer for Mazda and Aprilla, Vespa and Piaggio motorbikes.
“Mazda will never produce special cars just for Lebanon as it is such a small market. This needs to be thought about market-wise. For India, Pakistan and Egypt these are large markets [with] over one million vehicles [sold] a year. Not the new and used 100,000 vehicles a year market like in Lebanon,” he added.
But the car dealers’ primary opposition is on safety grounds and the feasibility of investing in the necessary infrastructure.
“Countries that have adapted vehicles to natural gas do so under severe controls. This will never be the case for Lebanon. [That’s] where the danger comes from,” Bazerji said.
On concerns over safe implementation of CNG, dealers do have a point, which has been echoed by environmentalists.
“In principle I am not against CNG but we need the infrastructure and rigorous standards as it is dangerous. In Lebanon, it is a pity to say, we cannot rely on law enforcement to make sure the laws are respected,” said Hassan Jaber, vice president of the Lebanese Association for Energy Saving and for the Environment (ALMEE). “At the méchanique [annual vehicle inspection], they are supposed to have checked 1.1 million vehicles since 2009 but so far only checked 160,000. Some people are even using additives in the fuel to get their car passed. The checks should be continuous, not [every other year].”
Indeed, consistency is a major concern. When the previous government started cracking down on reckless driving and introduced speed cameras last year, road accidents dropped by 10 percent in October and November, with the death-rate down 43 percent and injuries down 12.5 percent. But once the parliament dissolved in January, the police crackdown tailed off, as it has in the past when enforcing seat belt laws, stopping drivers using mobile phones or ensuring that motorbike riders wear helmets and refrain from driving the wrong way up one-way streets. “Motorbikers are like motorized pedestrians — they drive on the sidewalks and go through red lights, right in front of the police and they do nothing,” said Bazerji.
Furthermore, there are an estimated 20,000 cars that have been converted to run on natural gas canisters — the kind found in most kitchens. “Nobody is stopping these vehicles and there are no regulations or controls. If the government cannot stop this illegal usage, who will guarantee that this parallel production will not grow and put the country into real danger?” said Bazerji.
While the ministry claims that they have scoured the world for cases of accidents related to CNG and failed, there have been several cases of CNG-related accidents and even deaths. The potential hazards are illustrated by two examples from India this year, one where 15 passengers on a CNG bus were lucky to escape unscathed when a leakage in a fuel pipe caught fire, the other in February when a New Delhi woman was killed after the CNG vehicle she was in hit a divider and burst into flames.
With that said, properly regulated CNG vehicles are, according to expert analysis cited earlier, less dangerous than combustion engines.
The diesel disaster
A further reason dealerships are wary about the proposed introduction of CNG is over the government’s prior handling of diesel fuel. In the 1990s, the government encouraged the use of diesel over gasoline, with a high percentage of cars switching to diesel due to its lower costs and the efficient mileage attained. But after a few years it became apparent that many cars were running on substandard diesel that was highly pollutive. In 2002, the government banned diesel for private vehicles, limiting usage to buses and vehicles over a certain tonnage. This volte-face by the government caused havoc in the sector as consumers had to change back to vehicles powered by gasoline.
“We had to make the diesel switch possible to drivers as there were protests outside our showroom. That government policy put us in a bad situation,” said Rachid Rasamny, marketing manager of Century Motors, a dealership for Hyundai.
As of January, a parliamentary committee approved the import of new cars and vehicles that run on “green diesel” that complies with Euro 5 standards and banned the import of regular diesel vehicles, although the law still has yet to be passed. It appeared to imply that private diesel vehicles would be allowed but this was in the end not the case, provoking confusion at dealerships.
“I don’t understand this non-diesel policy. A comprehensive car policy has not been thought through. It is more short-term fighting over current high oil prices,” Rasamny said.
While the ministry is not against hybrids per se, it cites the same concerns the parliamentary committee voiced about CNG: safety.
“We don’t understand proposing hybrids and opposing CNG on safety, as hybrids are the real threat,” said the ministry’s Abu Khalil. “Hybrids are an alternative but [are] not as safe — a 400 volt battery alongside a gas tank… any spark would very easily ignite it, making it a car bomb.”
The car dealers dispute this claim, highlighting the awards hybrid cars have received and the billions of dollars spent on research and development that have gone into producing dual gasoline and electric powered vehicles.
“The Toyota Prius has been on sale in Japan since 1997, before even Google and Facebook were around,” said Philip Fred Boustany, managing director at BUMC, exclusive distributor of Toyota and Lexus. “As of September 2010, Toyota has sold 2 million units globally. The fact that hybrids run on electricity as well as gas is completely irrelevant when it comes to their safety. For example, Toyota designs its hybrids to withstand the same crash specifications as normal cars.”
Dealers also dismiss the ministry’s claim that hybrids are not suitable to Lebanon’s mountainous topography. “Hybrids are based on filling up the battery when running, but when climbing uphill the electric battery doesn’t work, so you have to use the regular engine, which doesn’t resolve the problem environmentally or economically,” said Abu Khalil.
Boustany counters that “the biggest misconception about hybrids is that they are not powerful cars.” Equipped with three different modes, Boustany said, the Prius is a very efficient car regardless of topography. “When climbing uphill, the regular engine will be doing its main job of power transfer to the wheels but at the same time recharge the batteries which will be used downhill, or further recharged through regenerative braking. In addition, if you end up stuck in traffic or at a standstill, your Prius will shut off its gas engine, saving you gas and protecting the environment from harmful emissions.”
He added that it was a “myth” that all hybrids need to be plugged into a charger on a daily basis, or that the batteries require replacement every three years.The major obstacle to introducing hybrids in Lebanon is the high costs of the vehicles themselves due to high customs and registration fees.
Boustany says the gas and environmental savings justify the price and he foresees 50 percent of all models offered by BUMC in 2015 will be hybrids or fully electrical vehicles. To Charles Tarazi, assistant general manager of Porsche, the cost of a hybrid — 7 to 8 percent more than a conventional vehicle — is a deterrent to consumers unless there are substantial tax incentives. “Why would you buy a hybrid in Lebanon? There is no point; you are paying more just to make a statement: ‘I’m driving a hybrid.’ It won’t save the world [if] a few guys drive hybrid cars,” he said, adding: “The main issue is tax advantages, yet in Lebanon there is no plan for the six-cylinder hybrid engines.”
Tarazi cited the tax advantages introduced in other countries for the six-cylinder Porsche Panamera, which has helped bolster sales: in the US, tax benefits reach up to $2,200, in Spain a 5 percent registration tax reduction was implemented and in France there is a $2,500 one-off tax reduction on car registration. “I think Syria was clever in changing the laws to promote hybrids, offering 50 percent less tax than on normal cars,” added Tarazi.
In Lebanon, it is the opposite; taxes are actually higher for hybrids than conventional vehicles, with the registration fee of a Toyota Prius 1.8L hybrid around $2,600, whereas a non-hybrid Corolla 1.8L is some $1,800.
A further impediment to hybrid adoption is that there has not been a big uptake throughout the Middle East and North Africa, with Lebanon’s small car market particularly susceptible to regional trends.
“The trend toward hybrids in the region has not really been successful. It is something we’ve discussed with the Hyundai Motor Company in South Korea,” said Rasamny. “I’m not sure we could get hybrids even if the law passes as there is not enough demand for it, especially since the high demand markets of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Iraq are not buying hybrids. If there’s no demand in the more populous markets, Hyundai will not send us hybrid vehicles.”
With the law still pending, the nation’s dealers are reluctant to even come up with a marketing strategy.
“When I approached Hyundai about hybrids I had to give demand figures, but due to the draft law being unclear I couldn’t give adequate figures,” said Rasamny. “Once the law passes, we will see how it will alter our sales strategy.”
The road ahead
With the car industry backing hybrids (especially if taxes were lowered), it would seem a sensible option for the government to promote a technology being rapidly adopted around the world. To ensure its uptake, the Lebanese government should follow the lead of other countries by reducing or even scrapping taxation on the vehicles to make the cost difference between hybrids and conventional cars more attractive to consumers.
If the difference were, for instance, $5,000 between the two, hybrid consumers would get a return on investment over a few years given a much lower fuel bill, with hybrids able to cover on average some 450 kilometers per 20 liters of fuel. The proposed law allowing hybrids should also be expanded to include six-cylinder hybrids, made by luxury car manufacturers such as Porsche and Lexus.
As to which is cleaner for the environment — CNG or hybrids — it is a tough call. The technology is continuously being updated, as exemplified in the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s “Greenest Vehicles of 2011” listing, which put the natural gas powered Honda Civic GX in first place, followed by the all-electric Nissan Leaf.
What the ministry did not discuss, nor did car dealers, is that the development of ultra-layered sulfur fuel and associated engine technology has narrowed the gap between CNG and other alternately powered vehicles in terms of meeting many countries’ national motor vehicle standards. The improvements have come so far that the mayor of London recently proposed replacing the city’s “Alternative Fuel Discount” — an exemption from fees that covered fully electric vehicles, hybrids and the cleanest gas powered cars — with a “Greener Vehicle Discount,” as some modern cars with conventional engines emit less carbon dioxide than most hybrids.
Lebanon will have to come up with a solution that is more environmentally friendly on one hand and, on the other, conducive to the particularities of the country. If only a limited number of consumers purchase hybrids, CNG or electric cars, the positive effects on the environment would naturally be minimal.
A high degree of realism is certainly needed to ascertain what is best for Lebanon, given the constraints and issues enumerated above. Hybrids, for instance, would cut down on fuel consumption without requiring installation of CNG infrastructure throughout the country. Furthermore, with the major brands manufacturing hybrids this would keep both dealers and car enthusiasts happy, as they wouldn’t have to retrofit vehicles for CNG.
The wheels on the public bus
The argument for CNG seems strongest when applied to service taxis, commercial vehicles and buses as a more limited roll out would enable better regulation to prevent CNG-related safety accidents and would limit the required number of fueling stations. Such a policy could also help revive public transport, with the number of blue and white public buses on the roads — as opposed to the private clunkers that do cover some parts of the city — dropping from 271 in 2008 to less than 15 today, according to Jaber of ALMEE.
While the cash-strapped government might oppose investing in public transport, the long-term benefits for the populace and the environment would be enormous. Alternatively, the government could enter into public-private partnerships to roll out a reliable bus network.
“We should have buses run on CNG as it would solve two problems in one: a new public transport with very low emissions and low cost of adaptation, as gas would be limited to stations owned by the transport ministry. Interfering with the daily life of the citizen and adding an alternative gas to the system is nonsense,” said Bazerji of GA Bazerji and Sons.
Improving the overall quality of fuel imported into Lebanon is a further solution to the country’s environmental woes, with imports, according to a source familiar with the issue, frequently substandard, highly pollutive and not well regulated by the government. Yet even if the green light is given to both CNG and hybrids it will do little to clean up the country’s air unless a comprehensive transport policy is developed.
“CNG will help reduce pollution and the cost of fuel, but CNG will not be the alternative,” said Yasmine Mahdi, senior transport engineer at SETS, a specialist engineering solutions firm. “Instead of technology, I’d think of alternative modes of transport for people to reduce the number of cars on the roads, the congestion and pollution. A feasible solution is to have a regulated bus transport network and get competitive companies to operate it. Other solutions are a congestion charge and increasing parking fees. There are many ideas that can be implemented by the government with no costs.”
Further ideas floated by interviewees include car pool lanes to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads and the promotion of motorbikes to curb congestion, with hybrid bikes now available and, in any case, two-wheelers polluting far less than cars. “Putting in motorbike lanes would be very easy to do, and then people would want bikes and not take a car if on their own,” said Boukhater, the dealer for Mazda, Aprilla, Vespa and Piaggio. “It would also make insurance cheaper, while getting rid of all the cars parked on highways and big streets. Also, a motorbike can be bought on credit for $60 a month, whereas a car is $200 plus.”
“When I suggest this to people they say it is not in our mentality. But CNG is? It wouldn’t cost the government anything and they could do a test for a few months that limited the coast road [north from Beirut] to bikers,” he added. The idea could be taken further to restrict certain roads to vehicles with more than one person, buses and motorbikes.
Congestion in itself poses a significant environmental problem. According to the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, test-drives in the Stuttgart area of Germany “showed that a car’s fuel consumption can be 60 percent higher with congestion compared to driving the same route when there is free flow.”
Encouraging consumers to trade in old vehicles for more fuel efficient new models is also one option on the table, although this would require financial incentives from the government to do so, which is unlikely given the country’s poor fiscal health.
Implementing higher taxes on large vehicles such as sports utility vehicles (SUVs) — which emit 30 percent more carbon dioxide and 75 percent more noxious gases than a normal car, depending on the fuel used — is a further option to limit environmental pollution. Such a policy would meet resistance from dealerships, but if higher taxes were levied on SUVs the revenues could be used to finance the trade-ins of old cars for new cleaner vehicles.
Financial assistance from the European Union or the United States Agency for International Development could also be sought as well, as suggested by the AIA.
All options should be reviewed and considered objectively by the government for implementation — perhaps while stuck in traffic on the way to and from their parliamentary offices.
Ultimately, the traffic problem and the associated environmental pollution is not going to abate unless consumers are encouraged to switch to more eco-friendly vehicles and a viable public transport system is made available to lower the number of cars on the roads.
“The media and TV talk of socio-economic problems, but transport is not discussed in its own right. We should keep asking officials about transport solutions,” said Mahdi from SETS. “We are way behind other countries and need to catch up."