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Driving Becomes a Natural Gas : Availability of the cleaner, cheaper fuel grows. Rebates and tax breaks make converting vehicles affordable.


Operated by Southern California Gas Co., Ventura County's first and only stationselling low-pollution, low-cost compressed natural gas as fuel for cars and trucks is now open 24 hours a day in Oxnard.

Although the official ribbon-cutting is scheduled for next month, Edna Ray is already a customer. Executive director of the county's office of the American Lung Assn., Ray fills up her Dodge van, which has been converted to burn natural gas.

Ray's organization bought the van in November. She had been particularly eager to begin doing her bit to fight local smog by using natural gas, which causes less than half the smog of gasoline.

"We're going to practice what we preach," she told her staff.

Ray and her staff became customers at the gas company's new station at Patton Court the minute it became operative this month.

Interviewed last week during a swing by the site, Ray said, "If I'm in the area I always gas up. It's cheaper and very easy to put in." Indeed, aside from costing her about 60 cents a gallon, gas fuel doesn't spill or smell up hands like gasoline.

And Ray gets the same mileage as with gasoline: 28 miles per gallon. The van is equipped with a switch that allows her to use either natural gas or regular unleaded gasoline. She had been told to expect some sluggishness when driving on natural gas, "but there's no difference," she said.

The distinction in price, by the way, is because the California Public Utilities Commission mandated that whatever the oil companies' wholesale price of gasoline is on any day of the year, the gas company's wholesale price for an equivalent amount of natural gas must be 26 cents less.

Ray is anticipating another boon as a result of having switched to cleaner fuel. Not only does it not fill the air with gunk, it doesn't coat the innards of her engine with deposits, either. She's been told the van might run nearly 500,000 miles before it needs overhauling or replacement.

Until this month, an ordinary motorist couldn't just walk into an American car dealership in the county and order a car, light truck or van equipped to use compressed natural gas.

Some foreign manufacturers expect to begin a program of ready availability in the U. S. by the end of this year, but Detroit's Big Three have jumped out ahead of the pack for once. Starting this month, you can call a local Ford, GM or Chrysler dealership and say you want the latest models--such as Caprice, Corsica, Ram, Voyager and Taurus--with a factory-installed natural gas option.

In case you're worried that they're going to soak you for being environmentally friendly, be aware that you're entitled by law to a package of rebates and tax breaks that can leave you paying almost nothing extra for switching to natural gas. Ask the dealer about reducing what would otherwise be about $4,000 in extra charges to nearly zip.

In addition to the gas company station Ray uses, other facilities will be popping up in our county and nearby for those who want to drive throughout the state without polluting it. This month, MacValley Oil Co. in Oxnard will open a natural gas station. MacValley is affiliated with Fleet Star Inc., a Texas firm that plans to open natural gas stations in Taft, Fresno, Bakersfield and Stockton this year.

The gas company publishes a map showing all the natural gas stations between San Diego and Sacramento. Until recently they were only every 50 miles or so. In 1994, many intervening stations are being built.


* FYI: For information on the new, low-pollution, low-cost natural gas stations in Ventura County, call Marcia Secord at Southern California Gas Co., 385-4802, or Mark Matye at MacValley Oil Co., 485-6900.

* COST: To compare prices and availability of popular models of American-made cars, vans or trucks equipped to use this fuel, you can, as of this month, call an authorized dealer in the county. The following dealers are particularly knowledgeable about natural gas models: Kevin Todey Chevrolet, William L. Morris Chevrolet, Crown Dodge, Westoaks Plymouth, Harbor Plymouth or Bob Beaty Ford. Be sure to ask about the rebates and tax breaks that can make these environmentally friendly vehicles cost no more than an ordinary gasoline-using model.

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