SAN CARLOS PARK — Paul Woods feels like his south Lee County-based biofuels start-up is under attack — again.
A little over a year ago, his company put a hold on its expansion plans at a test farm in Fort Myers because of uncertainty over new regulatory rules and questions the state raised about how its ethanol-producing algae might hurt the environment if it escaped. Woods overcame those challenges, but now faces a new one that might convince him to take his next expansion — the company’s first commercial farm valued at $400 million — out of state.
A push to repeal Florida’s Renewable Fuel Standard this legislative session has him reconsidering whether he will locate his multimillion-dollar farm in Florida. The Legislature’s vote eliminates the state requirement for ethanol fuel.
After successfully growing algae on a test farm in Fort Myers, his company, Algenol Biofuels Inc., is ready to take its product to the market and CEO Woods has been hunting for a spot in Florida. The farm is expected to employ hundreds of workers and create thousands of construction jobs. It would produce 15 million to 20 million gallons of ethanol a year.
“We have looked at Polk County, Hendry County, Martin County,” Woods said by phone. “We have looked at a lot of interior counties, and again this is somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs.”
The legislation he opposes — now in the hands of the governor — would repeal the state requirement for 10 percent ethanol in gasoline. Though the same federal mandate exists and the repeal isn’t expected to change the make-up of gasoline in Florida, Woods and others who have invested in ethanol projects in Florida say it sends a bad message, one that could have a chilling effect on the growth of the state’s bioenergy sector.
Sponsors of the legislation have said they expect the governor to sign it.
“We are reviewing it,” said Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office.
Woods recently sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, expressing his “grave concerns and extreme disappointment” with the Legislature’s decision and the “continued attack from anti-ethanol and anti-mandate proponents.”
He sees it as another swipe at his company.
“This will impact Algenol’s future development in Florida as investors would prefer to build commercial facilities in states that have not passed policies that adversely impact our business and our products,” he wrote to Scott, suggesting that one of the states he might now consider for his farm expansion is Texas.
Woods went on to criticize the governor for canceling a visit to his company on April 19, when Scott had planned to play up Algenol’s expansion plans in Florida, as he’s done in a road show around the state that has highlighted growing companies that are creating jobs.
Woods said he was told by a staffer with the governor’s office at the last minute that Scott wasn’t coming after all because it would be “awkward” to support an ethanol-producing company at the same time the state was considering the repeal of its Renewable Fuel Standard.
The repeal would be the same as telling his investors that Florida isn’t an ethanol-friendly state, Woods said by phone.
“It’s nothing but grandstanding,” he said. “That is what it is.”
The company already has invested $190 million and created more than 120 direct jobs in Southwest Florida, which includes its research and development center off Alico Road, Woods said.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, sponsored the legislation in the House. After companion bills passed in the House and Senate, he said in a statement that it’s clear both sides of the Legislature agree Floridians “should not be subject to oppressive mandates.”
He went on to say: “We are hopeful that after this long battle, the faithful patrons of our great state will be relieved of the overwhelmingly negative effects of ethanol.”
He’s fought for the repeal for two years.
State Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, sponsored the companion bill. After it passed in the Senate, he described it as a tremendous victory for Florida.
“The bill eliminates the unnecessary power of the government to force Florida citizens to buy and sell ethanol-blended gasoline,” he said in a statement. “It returns that power to the people and restores the power of the free market by giving consumers and retailers a choice regarding what fuel they wish to buy.”
More than $1 billion already has been invested in six ethanol projects, which are currently under way, according to the Florida Biofuels and Bioenergy Association.
“This sends a message to the biosector that Florida is closed for business — we are not interested in biotechnology investment, we are not interested in high-paying jobs, we would rather spend a billion dollars a year importing energy than generating our own,” said Honey Rand, a board member for the association.
Several big companies, such as DuPont and Monsanto, could reconsider their planned investments in Florida because of the proposed repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard, set in 2008, and also have sent letters of concern to the governor, she said.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization, representing more than 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the country, has urged the governor to veto the legislation, saying it could chill investment not just in the state’s biofuel industry but also in the larger biotechnology industry.