LOS ANGELES, DEC. 1 -- Two studies by researchers in California, the center of a national movement to switch automobiles from gasoline to cleaner-burning methanol, indicate that the new fuel may become more expensive than previously estimated and that demand for it may grow more slowly than expected.

The new price estimates by the Western Oil and Gas Association and staff members of the California state energy commission came on the eve of the annual conference of the World Methanol Association in San Francisco and an announcement of a Northern California program to market the fuel and test a Chevrolet Corsica that can run on either gasoline or methanol.

The report estimates that methanol would cost $1.42 to $2.25 per gallon from 1991 to 1996 and said it is "highly unlikely" that the fuel, which can be made from natural gas, coal or vegetable refuse, "will be price competitive to gasoline for many years."

The price of oil would have to more than double, to at least $45 a barrel, before the price of methanol would be competitive, the report said.

Kenneth Smith, transportation technology and fuel office manager for the state energy commission, said a new report from his office estimates costs at about $1.36 per gallon for a marketable methanol-gasoline mixture. That is higher than what was suggested in a May 1986 state report for a pure methanol fuel. But Smith called the oil and gas association's overall conclusions "much too pessimistic."

Methanol is among the more promising of alternative fuels being developed that would produce less air pollution than gasoline and could substitute for petroleum when it becomes too expensive and rare for use as automobile fuel.

Although methanol burns more cleanly than gasoline and gives better engine performance, a car must use more methanol for the same number of miles per gallon as gasoline.

According to the report, 1.8 gallons of methanol take a car as far as one gallon of gasoline.

Also, oil and gas association spokesman Michael Wang noted, most methanol producers presently make the fuel from cheap natural gas provided by foreign suppliers, which does little for U.S. energy independence.

Smith acknowledged the current dependence on natural gas, but emphasized that the methanol can be made from other sources -- "anything that can give us one carbon, four hydrogen and one oxygen atom."

High prices are to be expected, he said, as methanol suppliers build new production facilities. But the price is not likely to be as steep as the group predicted because of the current surplus of methanol-making capacity.

World demand for methanol is about 5 billion gallons a year, Smith said, while current plants could produce as much as 7 billion gallons. Even if new incentives, as proposed by Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), spur the automobile industry to expand production of methanol-burning cars, it would take several years -- and up to 2.5 million new vehicles -- to eat up that unused capacity.

At present, Smith said, California has more methanol-burning cars than any other state, but still has less than 1,000. ARCO had agreed to begin marketing methanol at 25 Southern California service stations next year.

Smith said Chevron will announce later this week a similar commitment for Northern California, along with a joint program with General Motors to test the new methanol-or-gasoline burning Corsica