Cecil Moore's Arco station on the corner of Mills and Main streets in Ventura is now the home of the nation's second retail methanol gas pump.
On Tuesday, Ventury County and state officials joined to lift a crushed-velvet cover from the blue-and-white pump, which will supply methanol to eight cars recently purchased by the county Resource Management Agency and five cars used by South Coast Area Transit (SCAT). The only other retail pump like it in the United States opened in downtown Los Angeles three weeks ago.
The 1983 Ford Escorts that will patronize the pumps run solely on methanol, a clean-burning fuel created primarily from natural gas, but also from coal or even biomass, such as sawdust and other vegetable matter. The county paid a slim $1,500 for each car, castoffs from a fleet of 150 used by state agencies to shuttle officials to and from Los Angeles International Airport, according to Carey Mullroy, program manager for the state's Office of Fleet Administration.
Officials hope that the cars symbolize a dramatic step toward reducing smog in the area.
"Of all the things we've done, this will be the giant step," said John K. Flynn, chairman of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
According to Charles R. Imbrecht, chairman of the California Energy Commission, the use of methanol can reduce smog-forming emissions such as benzene by 50% in each car.
However, some critics are not as enthusiastic. Many argue that methanol emits high levels of formaldehyde, corrodes car engines and gas tanks, and gets worse mileage than gasoline.
The commission has tested and solved most of these problems, Imbrecht said. The county's Escorts have non-metallic gas tanks, as well as engine parts that are impervious to methanol's corrosive effects.
Imbrecht added that a catalytic converter can limit formaldehyde emissions. Auto designers are testing that option, he said.
Designers also are working to include a fuel tank twice the normal size since the methanol-powered Escorts get only 11 miles per gallon, with a range of 120 miles on one tank. Methanol gets little more than half the mileage of gasoline, despite the alluring pump price of 82 cents a gallon.
Still, Imbrecht insists that methanol, the fuel used in Indianapolis 500 race cars, is peppier and safer than regular gasoline.
Although Hoechst Celanese Chemical Group produces the methanol, Arco hosted the unveiling and hopes to establish 25 California methanol pumps from Sacramento to San Diego over the next 10 years. Chevron plans to match that number.
"Alternative fuel is something we have to start looking at," said Ralph Sloan, district manager for Arco. "The Energy Commission came to us to host this program. We jumped at it."
The rest of the United States has not been as quick to test methanol's possibilities. Julie Stewart, spokeswoman for the American Gas Assn. in Arlington, Va., said Americans still shy away from methanol because "there's no general agreement by even the experts on which alternative fuel is best."
Bill in Congress
Even so, the Methanol and Alternative Fuels Promotion Act is plowing its way through Congress. The bill, already approved in the Senate, would give incentives to companies that produce methanol-capable vehicles.
The measure's supporters hope to crack the United States' dependency on foreign oil.
Some, however, think this is a minor issue. Since it is expensive to make methanol from coal or biomass, most companies would turn to natural gas, which is largely obtained abroad, said Richard O'Toole, an economist at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a participant in last year's Western Oil and Gas Assn. study of methanol.
"They're going to make it out of natural gas as long as they can," O'Toole said. "Almost by definition, we're dependent on foreign countries."
Imbrecht agrees, but contends that the natural gas market is not vulnerable to the OPEC-style hammerlock that has controlled oil.
He added that Southern California Edison and other companies are investigating clean ways to convert coal into methanol.
The private sector may be cruising in methanol-powered cars by the summer of 1992, although just how many is unclear. The California Energy Commission estimates an additional 5,000 such cars on California roads by then, although Arco's Sloane sees as many as 250,000.
Those, he said, would be variable- or flexible-fuel cars that run on either gasoline or methanol. Fewer than 1,000 methanol cars now ply California highways, fueling up at fleet pumps run by the state agencies and corporations, like Bank of America and Xerox, that own them.
One of the variable-fuel cars, a GM Corsica, was on display at the Ventura Arco on Tuesday.
Imbrecht said such cars may help solve a "chicken-and-egg" problem that has so far vexed clean-air advocates. Auto companies have been reluctant to build cars when there are no methanol pumps. At the same time, oil companies will not produce methanol if few cars use it.
"If you were talking about all of California using methanol, the current sources of methanol would not be large enough to serve the entire market," said O'Toole.
But the variable-fuel Corsica, Imbrecht said, will entice both auto and oil companies and bridge the gap.
If that happens, the air may get cleaner.
"If we displace 30% of gasoline use by the year 2000, we'd see a 15% to 20% reduction of emissions from cars in the South Coast Air Basin," Imbrecht said. "We see the flexible-fuel vehicle as the transition vehicle."
And the AM-PM Mini Mart that adjoins Cecil Moore's Arco station might see some extra business.
"I think it's going to be a great advantage for Ventura and for moi, " Moore said. "A methanol sign on the freeway will lead them to my station."