Gas Co. Shifts Gears in Plan for Natural-Gas Vehicles : Energy: The move from targeting ordinary drivers to focusing on fleet sales reflects an industry trend.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a sharp shift in strategy, Southern California Gas Co. said that it will suspend efforts to get ordinary drivers to buy natural gas vehicles, concentrating instead on promotion of gas-fueled buses, shuttles, taxis and other fleet vehicles.

The move by the company, the nation's largest gas utility, is part of a general retreat by natural-gas vehicle proponents around the country. The industry has long advocated vehicle sales to the mass consumer market as well as to government and private fleets.

But Warren I. Mitchell, Gas Co. president and chairman of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, said that recent industry research--as well as market analysis by the gas company itself--showed the need to focus on fleets.

The "changing political and regulatory environment, the slower-than-expected pace by the auto industry to bring vehicles into the marketplace and the limited investment by the oil industry in the [natural-gas] refueling infrastructure all contributed to the lack of development of the mass market," Mitchell said in a statement.

The utility had once planned a 600-site network of public refueling stations in Southern California, but Mitchell said in an interview Wednesday that this will be cut back to 260 facilities. The company late Tuesday drastically shrank its request to the California Public Utilities Commission for approval to use ratepayer funds to build these facilities--cutting the request by $85 million, to a total of $70 million.

"If you're out there long enough and nobody steps up to the plate with you, you have to come up with an alternate strategy," said Bill Van Amburg, spokesman for Calstart, the state consortium promoting alternative vehicles.

The first mass-produced natural-gas passenger vehicle, a 1996 Ford Crown Victoria, is scheduled to debut later this year.

Ford spokesman John Clinard said Wednesday that the auto maker's "expectation has been that the majority of our 1996 sales will be to fleet customers. I would assume we will be able to meet our sales objectives even with this change."

Use of natural gas vehicles will continue to be spurred by federal laws requiring a mix of alternative-fueled vehicles in federal and private fleets, beginning next year.

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