Amid Gas Shortages, Japan’s Propane Taxis Putter On

A propane-powered Toyota Crown Comfort taxicab — and incidentally it's for sale. Asking price: $4,825. (image: japaneseusedcars.com)

Six days after a massive earthquake shook Japan, the fallout from the disaster continues to stymie relief efforts. While much of the media attention has fallen on averting nuclear disaster, the oil markets have been pinballing, trying to decide what the the country’s demands will be as it rebounds in the coming months. Meantime, Japan’s refining operations were damaged, and are expected to function at lower capacities through the end of the month.

That has meant a shortage on refined petroleum products, including gasoline and diesel at the pump and heating oil at the Misawa Air Base. “Search and rescue teams can’t even get around, they’re having to walk around,” a spokeswoman with one U.N. relief team tells NBC News. “In terms of all the elements coming together … they’re facing a really hard task.”

But the taxicabs carry on.

In the northern city of Aomori — where gas and heating oil are scarce — the taxis are still taking fares. “The taxis use propane, I didn’t know!” tweeted an American expat there named John Matthews. And another Japan observer named cyberaxe added: “It is still possible to get a taxi. They are fueled by liquid propane gas … reserve storage tanks.”

Propane vehicles have been on Japanese roadways for almost 50 years, according to the World LP Gas Association. The country is home to about 280,000 autogas vehicles, and an ongoing initiative aims to bump that above 300,000 by 2013.