TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist has endorsed a plan to build an ethanol plant on land that the state is trying to buy from U.S. Sugar to use for Everglades restoration.
The governor said he's concerned about the fate of the 1,800 U.S. Sugar employees who depend on the company to survive. So using some of its property for ethanol production "is one of the things I'd like to see," Crist said Wednesday in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.
Although Crist did not endorse a project by a specific company, an ethanol manufacturer backed by General Motors already has spent several months negotiating with U.S. Sugar to build a plant next door to the company's Clewiston mill.
Negotiations with the ethanol company, Coskata, have been on hold while talks about the state buyout proceed, said Robert Coker of U.S. Sugar, "but depending on what happens in the next month or so, we'll probably be sitting back down with them."
"We've seen few sites that hold more promise than this," agreed William Roe, Coskata's president.
Roe said his company hopes to build a $400-million plant next door to the sugar mill that would produce 100-million gallons of fuel a year — double the usual size of such plants. It would employ a minimum of 75 to 100 people, he said.
Coskata, an Illinois firm, is backed not only by GM but also by Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist who was one of the keynote speakers at Crist's climate change summit in Miami last year.
Coskata specializes in turning waste products such as sugarcane leaves into ethanol. Its executives boast that when their demonstration plant in Madison, Pa., opens next year, they will be able to produce ethanol for about $1 a gallon. Even if U.S. Sugar stops growing cane, the company could still find plenty of other plant waste in the region to turn into ethanol, Roe said.
Critics complain that ethanol tends to consume 3 gallons of water for every gallon of ethanol produced. But Roe said his company's process of squeezing fluid from the plants could wind up producing extra water for South Florida — not to mention steam to help power the sugar mill as it grinds up to 40,000 tons of sugarcane each day during the October-April harvest season.
Coskata spent months negotiating with U.S. Sugar officials only to learn on June 24 that the state planned to buy the company's 187,000 acres, plus its mill, railroad and other assets. The goal: jump-start the flagging Everglades restoration project.
Although the agreement that Crist announced set an upper limit for the price tag of $1.75-billion, the final price and other key details remain to be worked out by the South Florida Water Management District, including what will happen to the company's brand-new sugar mill.
"There has been a lot of interest in the assets," water district executive director Carol Wehle told her board Wednesday in response to a question about the mill.
The proposed buyout has enabled Crist to reap worldwide publicity and favorable comments from environmental activists. But the deal also has drawn sharp criticism from members of Congress and powerful state lawmakers. At a budget hearing Wednesday, state Rep. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, urged Crist's aides not to rush into a deal that could ruin Hendry County's economy.
Alexander may get his wish. Wehle's staff said the buyout, originally supposed to be ready for a vote by Nov. 30, now may not close until early next year.