MUMBAI/NEW DELHI • Smothered by increasingly toxic air, India is moving to the forefront of a global push to use more of cleaner natural gas in vehicles.
The country's state-run gas companies are charting ambitious plans to extend the use of natural gas to trucks and scooters, and build infrastructure for long-haul travel on the fuel.
Their optimism is reflected in forecasts from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which said in its latest outlook that India is on course to be the biggest contributor to growth in the use of natural gas in vehicles after the United States and China up to 2040.
One of the top automobile markets, where about 70 per cent of vehicles run on diesel, India is seeking to cut emissions and its import bill by more than doubling natural gas use in its energy mix by 2021.
Adding urgency to the move is the dubious distinction its capital gained earlier this month of being the world's most-polluted city.
Still, progress towards widening the use of natural gas will be slow, given declining domestic production, a patchy pipeline network and limited regasification capacity for imports.
"The scope of gas in India's transport (industry) is huge," said Mr E.S. Ranganathan, managing director of Indraprastha Gas, which has launched gas-fuelled scooters in New Delhi using engine-conversion kits developed by an Iranian firm.
"We just need the right policies to boost investment in its infrastructure, such as laying more pipelines, setting up of refuelling stations along the highways, and using liquefied natural gas to fuel vehicles."
The government has already prioritised city-based gas distribution, including the use of compressed natural gas for transport, and said that local production should first be used to meet demand in this sector.
It also plans to more than double the country's pipeline network, which is more developed in western than in eastern India, to about 30,000km.
Though gas in India is priced too high to compete against cheaper coal for power generation, state-run gas firms see it winning the cost battle in transportation against more expensive petrol and diesel.
Running a vehicle on natural gas is over 60 per cent cheaper than petrol and 32 per cent less than diesel at current prices, according to a statement from Indraprastha Gas.
It is also cleaner, sharpening its appeal. Readings in New Delhi for deadly particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, soared above 900 micrograms per cubic metre early this month, according to pollution monitoring site Air Visual.
The readings were well above the World Health Organisation's annual exposure guideline of 10 micrograms.
A key hurdle is supply. Natural gas demand in India is expected to increase four-fold to 190 billion cubic metres in 2040, though domestic production may rise to only 90bcm, according to the IEA.
Imports will need to fill the 100bcm gap, according to the agency.
In the year ended March 31, domestic natural gas production fell to a nine-year low. Of the country's total gas consumption, about 46 per cent was met through imports.
That has not stopped India's oil ministry from working with other departments, such as the federal road ministry and state governments, to push the use of liquefied natural gas in transportation.
"If we are able to convert heavy, long-haul vehicles to run on LNG, it will help cut pollution and also lower costs," Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said on Nov 10.
Mr Prabhat Singh, chief executive officer of Petronet, India's biggest importer of the chilled fuel which is targeting large and small trucks, said: "We consume about 70 million tons of diesel annually. Even if we're able to replace half of it, that will be a big success."