If Ecotrans takes off the way Southern California Gas Co. officials hope it will, the gas more motorists seek before long will be all natural.
Ecotrans, a natural-gas vehicle production plant on an 11-acre site in East Los Angeles, began full operation last week. It specializes in outfitting new pickup trucks, vans and other vehicles with natural-gas equipment and converting older vehicles that run on gasoline.
Officials said that so far, the bulk of the vehicles being converted at the plant involve government or large-company vehicles. Still, they said, the widespread switch from gasoline to natural gas or other alternative fuels in private vehicles is inevitable, especially considering government mandates for a cleaner environment.
"The vehicles Ecotrans will put on the street will produce far fewer pollutants than conventional vehicles," said Warren Mitchell, president of the gas company and chairman of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, which consists of 250 companies in the natural-gas industry nationwide.
Officials said natural gas lowers emissions of carbon monoxide by roughly 90%, compared to gasoline-powered engines, and natural gas generally costs about 40 cents less per gallon than gasoline.
The Ecotrans plant, which employs about 40 workers, mostly displaced aerospace employees, is expected to generate several thousand jobs as conversions become more popular during the next few years, they said.
For many motorists, the drawbacks to the natural-gas system include the estimated $3,000 to $4,500 conversion cost and the relative scarcity of natural-gas refueling stations in the region--fewer than 60.
Ronald H. Smith, general manager at Ecotrans, said those who make the switch will be given map books that identify the refueling stations. And, he said, conversions can be done so that vehicles maintain the ability to operate on gasoline, switching automatically if they get low on natural gas.
Smith said that conversion costs are expected to be closer to $1,500 by the turn of the century because of system improvements and other factors. He forecast about 600 refueling stations in Southern California by that time.
Officials said that about 2,000 vehicles now operate on natural gas in the region, with about 100 of those belonging to private citizens. An estimated 200,000 natural-gas vehicles are expected to be on the road in the area by the century's end. And the East Los Angeles plant hopes to produce at least 9,500 natural gas vehicles by the end of 1996.
"Natural gas is much cleaner and safer," Smith said. "The chance to help the environment and to have this project to work on has been exciting."
A tour of the plant on East Olympic Boulevard near Santa Fe Avenue revealed an assembly line of white trucks, many of them adorned with blue-and-yellow gas company decals reading, "Natural Gas Powered--For Clean Air-Economy-Performance."
Elsewhere at the complex, the vehicles at various stages of conversion included a United Parcel Service truck, a U.S. government military police van, a Marine Corps pickup truck and several U.S. Postal Service delivery trucks.
Councilman Richard Alatorre, whose 14th District includes the plant site, said a major reason he supports Ecotrans is the potential for job opportunities. Oil industry representatives who oppose the transition to natural gas are bound to find out they are fighting the wave of the future, he said.
"They don't have a choice," he said. "The smart ones are doing it. The dumb ones are going to fight the inevitable."