21 March 2002
Maha Al-Azar Daily Star
Taxi drivers said Wednesday that their proposal to replace the some 17,000 sooty smoke-sputtering vehicles running on low-grade diesel with gasoline-powered cars by June will not burden the state’s Treasury. United Association of Taxi Drivers and Transportation Services president Bassem Tleis announced the proposal during a news conference at the General Labor Confederation.
Under the plan, Tleis explained that the state-owned Finance Bank or any number of private banks would offer soft loans to drivers so they would be able to replace their diesel-powered vehicles with gasoline-engine cars. The government, however, would have to back such an enterprise so that the banks would grant the required loans, he said.
Tleis said cars would be exempt from all required tariffs “for one time only,” and drivers would expect their gasoline to be subsidized by the government. “We call on the government to offer (drivers) gasoline at a reduced price … not to exceed LL10,000 per 20-liter tank of gasoline,” said Tleis, adding that it would be up to the government to monitor the distribution of the gasoline and prevent the emergence of a black market.
Currently, there are 33,298 taxi or service vehicles, in addition to 4,000 minibuses. Of these, some 17,000 cars are diesel-powered. MPs had passed Law 341, which calls for a reduction in air pollution by the transport sector, on Aug. 6, 2001 , sending taxi-drivers’ associations into frenzied demonstrations.
As a result, Interior Minister Elias Murr undertook to delay its implementation, promising to find a fair solution to the impasse. The law included clauses that specified deadlines for phasing out diesel-engines from the transport sector, with the exception of trucks and large buses, as well as reinstituting the road-worthiness test, which was suspended almost three years ago.
Currently, motorists are required to pay mecanique fees at the bank, but do not have to subject their cars to inspection. “Little” of Law 341 has been implemented, Beirut MP Mohammed Qabbani told The Daily Star, “We have done our part as MPs, now it’s up to the Cabinet to implement the law,” he said.
Qabbani, who is a member of Parliament’s Environment Committee, said he and a number of other MPs had addressed the Cabinet last week with an official question about why they have not implemented the law. “The next parliamentary session is April 29. If we don’t receive a satisfactory answer by then, we will transform the question into an inquiry,” he added. Qabbani criticized both the Public Works and Transport Ministry and the Interior Ministry for the delay.
Environmentalists have often explained that diesel-powered cars in Lebanon are polluting for two reasons. First, the engines are not made for road vehicles but for heavy-duty agricultural equipment. Moreover, the diesel on the market is meant for use in heating and not in the transport sector. Environmentalists have said they wanted Law 341 to include a clause that would allow the use of natural gas as fuel, as it is the least polluting among the three fuels.
“We wanted them to think long-term,” said Hala Ashour, a member of Green Line, a local non-profit environmental organization. According to Ashour, there was increasing interest in natural gas as a source of fuel, “but there is no law currently on the books that governs that.”