ISLAMABAD -- A few years ago, Raja Hassan Akhter took the leap and converted his taxi to a cleaner-burning fuel.
Not that the environment was his primary concern -- this was a business decision, and one that worked brilliantly at first. Compressed natural gas (CNG) was dirt cheap and his little Suzuki was still able to run on traditional gasoline if needed.
But now the switch doesn't appear to be all it was pumped up to be. Akhter has been waiting in line at an Islamabad gas station for nearly two hours, and there are still five cars ahead of him waiting to fill up.
The rush to convert to CNG led to high demand and, subsequently, supply shortages. The lack of regulations allowed many substandard conversions to hit the streets, raising safety concerns. And the growth of unregulated filling stations fueled environmental concerns and paved the way for corruption.
Akhter pays about $50 to fill up his small car, and for that amount he gets twice the mileage. But time is money, and Akhter is not happy with the amount of time he invests queuing up at gas stations. On a good day -- when things are busy on one of the four days a week when the fuel is obtainable -- Akhter often has to fill up twice a day.
"Today I cannot save anything. It now seems very difficult to provide food for my family whether I use gasoline or CNG for my taxi. From the beginning of this year even getting CNG at all has been difficult because supply [tanks] lack needed pressure. Whatever little we get comes after lining up for a long time. Gasoline is even more expensive," Akhter said.
CNG is still cheaper than gasoline, so it allows Akhter more margin for profit. But with all the negatives it is getting harder to see the benefits.
Mansoor Muzzafar Ali, a senior executive at the government's Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority, explains how CNG's success has exposed unforeseen challenges. "Compressed natural gas is the cleanest fuel available in Pakistan. The issues we are now facing are is the shortage of gas supplies, which affects the transport sector, and that's why you see long lines around CNG filling stations," Ali says.
"We are also facing the issue of keeping passengers safe and secure in vehicles using CNG. Last month [in December] many people died in accidents attributed to using the CNG."
CNG Drive In The 1990s
The use of CNG was introduced by the government in the early 1990s as part of an effort to make public transportation more affordable. The clean burning, inexpensive fuel was seen as the perfect way to power buses.
But the average car-owner soon saw the potential for savings as well, especially after gasoline and diesel prices doubled or even quadrupled over the past few years.
The race was on to convert private vehicles to CNG, and with 3 million vehicles now fitted to run on CNG, Pakistan now stands as a global leader in the use of natural gas in vehicles. That helps reduce the country's dependence on imported fuel and has triggered the development of a network of 3,000 CNG filling stations, which in turn provide local jobs.
But that success came with a big risk. Private vehicles were often converted with makeshift, and dangerous, kits.
Overall statistics about the dangers are difficult to come by, but in December alone Pakistani media reported three deadly accidents attributed to CNG use in passenger vehicles. At least 24 people died in those accidents, and 27 more were injured, as a result of gas-cylinder explosions or the ignition of leaking gas.
The Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority's Ali says steps are being taken to improve safety.
"Interior Minister Rehman Malik has formed a high-powered task force that has formulated standard operating procedures for CNG workshops and filling stations. And roadside workshops where the workmanship and substandard materials were used will be closed soon," Ali said.
CNG has also come under criticism amid strikes over extended natural-gas cuts to homes and factories, with some alleging CNG stations are siphoning off natural gas meant to keep kitchen stoves burning, converting it, and selling it for a handsome profit.
Ali says that one way to cut down on corruption and alleviate supply shortages would be to restrict the use of CNG to public-sector vehicles.
"Initially, our concept was to promote it as a poor man's fuel. But now the people driving around in Prados [Sports Utility Vehicles] and Mercedes cars are using it. This defeats the main purpose of its promotion as an alternative cheap fuel," Ali said.
Quite simply, Ali, says, "its use should be banned in private-sector vehicles."