Venezuela to Reopen Natural Gas Program for Cars

Venezuela intends to reopen its vehicular natural gas program, announced PdVSA Director Asdrubal Chávez last week. The program promises environmental and economic benefits for the South American country.

Caracas, Venezuela, February 25, 2006—Last week, PdVSA, Venezuela’s state owned oil company, announced its intention to reopen its program to replace some of the country’s vehicular gasoline consumption with natural gas.

The project was closed down some five years ago, because, according to Bloomberg, of natural gas shortages. PdVSA Director of Business and Supply, Asdrubal Chávez, cousin of President Húgo Chávez, said at a Tuesday press conference that the first phase of the plan would be to reopen the 160 stations for Natural Gas for Vehicles previously built by PdVSA. This phase should bee completed by the end of June. The second step would be to switch public transportation vehicles from gasoline to natural gas, which would lead to an estimated 10 to 15 percent diversion from gasoline to natural gas. The third step would be to open natural gas stations in highly populated areas in the country which currently don’t have the stations.

“This way we can offer our consumers a more ecological fuel, with which we’ll have environmental benefits and will also be more economical,” said Chávez, according to Petroleum World.

According to the US Department of Energy, “Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning alternative fuels available and offers a number of advantages over gasoline. In light-duty applications, air exhaust emissions from natural gas vehicles are much lower than those from gasoline-powered vehicles. In addition, smog-producing gases, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, are reduced by more than 90% and 60%, respectively and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is reduced by 30%-40%.”

However, while a switch from gasoline to natural gas in Venezuela would potentially have health benefits for residents by reducing toxic emissions, unless Venezuela cut production rather than sold the saved gasoline abroad, world green house gas production would not decrease.

Natural gas has been a difficult fuel to use for vehicles, because, for use in automobiles and trucks, the gas can be compressed, but not liquefied. The result is that vehicles using the fuel need to be refilled frequently, and so must run in areas with frequent easy access to stations which supply natural gas, which often involve expensive technology to compress and transport the gas. Natural gas tanks are also large, and can be costly to add to existing vehicles. According to Bloomberg, Chávez did not mention the cost of the program.

South America is leading the world with number of natural gas vehicles on the road, with Brazil and Argentina the only two countries world wide to have more than a million natural gas vehicles, according to numbers from the International Association of Natural Gas. The United States ranks sixth, with less than one tenth the number of cars on the road as Argentina, but over seven times the population.

A natural gas program will allow Venezuela to export more gasoline, which it sells on the world market at a profit, but heavily subsidizes within the country.