Saving fuel | Sunday Observer

Saving fuel

19 June, 2022

It would not be incorrect to say that fuel makes the world go around. Ever since the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) was invented more than a century ago, we have been relying heavily on fossil fuel derivatives such as petrol, diesel and kerosene, otherwise known as jet fuel. The ICE is one reason for the rapid industrialisation and development of the world. Fossil fuels are also used to generate energy for household and industrial use.

This is indeed how much of the world runs now. If the flow of oil is stopped tomorrow, the world as we know it will come to a grinding halt. But oil is a finite resource that may last only for 100 more years and even coal could be gone in the next 300 years. This is why it is imperative to find alternatives to fossil fuel, which is also responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that this is a long-term process, right now it is actually more practical and important to conserve the fossil fuel that we already use. Long before the current fuel crisis, we have been advocating fuel conservation in these spaces. There is no doubt about it at all – we have to use fuel sparingly in the face of the biggest economic crisis experienced in the country so far. It must essentially be treated as a very precious commodity.

It actually is, at more than US$ 100 per barrel of crude oil. Worse, with the Sapugaskanda Refinery being out of action from time to time, we have to import the finished products - petrol, diesel and kerosene which costs considerably more in the open market. As a net importer of petroleum products, Sri Lanka really feels the crunch with its depleted foreign exchange reserves with a monthly fuel bill that exceeds US$ 500 million.

This is clearly not sustainable in the long term for an economically challenged country such as ours. But until such time when we can drastically reduce our dependence on oil, there are several steps that can be taken in that direction.

First, whether we like it or not, all subsidies on petroleum products have to be removed. Even kerosene has to be sold at cost price. Even with the recent massive price increases, pump prices in Sri Lanka compare very favourably with the rest of the developing world. If fuel is sold at the actual world market prices, only those who really need it will buy.

There is also an alternative proposal whereby two pricing tiers can be created for fuel sales. Under this proposal, three wheelers, motorcycles, tractors, commercial vehicles and fishing boats and so son will be given fuel at a lower price while all private car owners will have to pay the higher price regardless of the fuel type. Whether this can be done practically is another matter altogether but it is worth considering.

Another measure, proposed by the Government itself, is fuel rationing. While this concept is incompatible with the ethos of the open economy, it is an idea worth pursuing in the light of our economic constraints. Under this scheme, each vehicle owner would get say, a 100 litres of fuel for a given number of days, perhaps 60 litres from the nearest filling station where he or she is registered and the rest from any filling station island wide.

Even if this operational for a limited period, there could be a considerable fuel saving and fuel consumption patterns can also be analysed properly for future contingencies. Paradoxically, fuel consumption has actually increased amidst the present scarcity as practically vehicle users demand a full tank whenever they get the opportunity.

A proposal for temporarily banning the use of vehicles exceeding an engine capacity of 2.0 litres has also gained atttraction. Higher engine capacity vehicles are generally known as gasoline guzzlers and many countries have tough laws governing their import and use. If this is implemented properly, even our people’s representatives will have to ditch their favourite V8’s and travel in more spartan vehicles. This also brings us to the question of concessionary duty free permits issued to MPs and certain other categories.

This scheme has to be scrapped completely. Permit holders tend to import high engine capacity vehicles under this scheme, which the country cannot sustain at the moment. Perhaps only expatriate workers truly deserve this facility. What has happened until now is that MPs and others have been importing high-powered SUVs and luxury cars using the forex remitted by our expat workers. This grave injustice must be corrected at least now.

Once car imports resume after our economy recovers from its moribund status, priority should be given to the import of all-electric cars. If, over a period of 10 years, we could have at least 50,000 electric cars, there will be a massive saving in terms of the fuel bill.

Indeed, we can also import electric buses for the SLTB and the private bus sector, to encourage more motorists to give up their cars and ride the bus. In this regard, the recent launch of the park and ride transport service deserves praise.

The cancellation of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) Project was a monumental folly, but if that cannot be resurrected, the suburban railway system should be electrified and more modern compartments added to lure motorists away from their cars. And all those who use private cars must use fuel very sparingly, keeping the available fuel for the most essential of journeys such as a sudden visit to the hospital. Such a drastic reduction in our fuel consumption is the key to facing the fuel crisis.