Little progress made on natural gas bus initiative

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Fueling public buses with cleaner gas could save a lot of money and help protect the environment, but Ho Chi Minh City authorities show no intention of financing the switch, according to an insider familiar with the issue.

Two public buses have been running on natural gas since May 6 between HCMC National University Dormitory and Mien Tay Bus Station, where people are carried to and from Mekong Delta destinations.

The pilot project has proved highly effective, said Phung Dang Hai, director of the city Transport Cooperative.

"The machines run smoothly. There's almost no smoke emission and the fuel was burnt completely, saving on costs," Hai said.

But a bus designed to run on compressed natural gas costs VND800 million (US$42,100) more than diesel bus, which costs VND1.1-1.2 billion.

Hai said transport firms cannot afford the new buses. Some firms are content with their old buses and are unlikely to buy new ones, he said.

"We need support from the city government."

Hai said that city plans to use natural gas buses were not yet specific enough, and no budget had been allocated.

According to one proposal, firms that own or operate such buses would sign contracts with PetroVietnam Southern Gas Joint Stock Company to buy natural gas at prices more than 40 percent cheaper than the diesel fuel currently used by buses in the city.

Each bus using natural gas will save more than US$8,000 a year, said Pham Xuan Mai, head of the Transport Technology Faculty at HCMC Polytechnics University.

So nearly $84 million could be saved in fuel costs every year if all 10,000 public buses in the city switch to using natural gas. The savings after three years will reach $250 million, equal to the amount it would cost to have all the buses switch from diesel to gas.

Southern Gas Company has built two large plants in Vung Tau, a beach city neighboring HCMC, which produce 50 million of cubic meters of gas a year. It also operates 15 smaller plants, including one located in Tan Binh District, HCMC.

The Tan Binh plant is capable of fueling 50 buses a day but only the two test buses currently use the plant, so the company has run out of money to rent the facility and pay workers there.

Hai said the company will stop supplying gas to the plant if no more buses come in the next one month.

"That's kind of like a death sentence for natural gas buses, after only a very short time," he said.

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