HAMBURG (dpa) – Germany’s natural-gas industry is forming a new company to manage a 150-million-euro (132-million-dollar) expansion of the filling-station network for natural-gas-powered vehicles.Established at the end of January, it operates under the management of Ruhrgas AG.The natural-gas industry scents a large, new sales market after natural-gas-powered vehicles remained in their niche existence for years. The broad-based building programme is intended to bring about the breakthrough.“It is high time that we get the infrastructure or else the gas- powered car won’t be able to become a mass product,” said Volker Etzbach of Munich-based Bayerngas. Etzbach is one of Germany’s most enthusiastic advocates of natural-gas-powered vehicles.The industry will provide more than 150 million euros to set up more than 1,000 new natural-gas filling stations in Germany, thus increasing the number almost fivefold from the current nearly 250.“That will be then be a truly countrywide network,” Etzbach said. A long road lies ahead for the sector before it achieves its goal, however.Etzbach projects five years for the first 500 new filling stations, with the remainder taking a shorter time. The relatively high cost of between 300,000 and 500,000 euros each for the gas pumps is supposed to be slashed by half in tandem with the higher output.German oil companies, who are actually responsible for supplying cars with fuel, have never showed any particular interest in the natural gas business. “With 24 pumps, we’re the market leader in Germany,” Karl-Heinz Schult-Bornemann of ExxonMobil, Hamburg, says. “However, a natural- gas pump cannot be operated economically without strong financial engagement on the part of the gas sector,” he notes.The time and effort is unrewarding for the mineral oil companies because hardly any natural-gas-powered cars are on the roads. In Germany, only 10,000 of the 40 million licensed motor vehicles use natural gas and most of them belong to municipal service companies.The gas industry wants to make the enormous outlay because it can make a killing if it succeeds. A car consumes about half as much gas per year as a single-family house. If the spread of gas-powered cars increases considerably then the market share will climb further.Natural gas already slashed the market shares of gas considerably in the area of residential heating. It is clear to the mineral oil sector that new fuels are a topic for the future.“However, we are staking more on the fuel cell,” ExxonMobil’s Schult-Bornemann says. But, the cell is not ready for operation. “That is all far into the future but we can have natural-gas cars immediately,” Etzbach says.The state is promoting the environmental-friendly fuel by being contented with lower taxes and thus making the natural gas price cheaper.The decisive question now will be whether the financial model proposed by the gas sector will function: Communal utility services will pay for and maintain the pumps while mineral oil companies will provide space at their filling-stations for a leasing fee.The gas companies, on the other hand, would be allowed to determine the prices and pocket the profits – if ever any are made.