Man on a Mission

Santa Rosa County Commissioner Robert Cole is as good with engines as he is with business and politics, and he doesn't just want northwest Florida to start using biodiesel-he wants to see the renewable fuel made there.
By Nicholas Zeman | June 01, 2006
It's late April, and Robert Cole has just refueled his Jeep Liberty Common Rail Diesel with B100 and set out from the Florida Panhandle town of Milton en route to Atlanta, 315 miles to the northeast.

Cole is making his way to the first Southeast Diesel Collaborative Conference, a U.S. EPA-sponsored event focused on strategies to promote clean and renewable diesel, as well as emerging technologies for farm, heavy-construction and on-road diesel vehicles. It's an event for government types, emissions experts and those who simply know their way around an engine. Cole, a lifelong automotive technician and present Santa Rosa County (Fla.) Commissioner fits two of those categories to a T-and he's an eager participant. The fact that Cole is road-tripping in a biodiesel-fueled SUV makes the five-hour drive to Georgia's capital all the more justified. Then again, no one needs to remind Cole that he's working toward a good cause. He's completely sold on biodiesel. "You have to be excited about this area of the country taking the right steps to protect the environment, lessening our dependence on foreign oil and helping the American farmer," Cole tells Biodiesel Magazine in his unassumingly-on-message style.

This mechanic-turned-politician did just that out of "aggravation with the incumbent," and change seems to be Cole's marching song. As a county commissioner, he's made promoting biodiesel and implementing its use a cornerstone of his agenda. But he's not a biofuels newcomer. His interest in alternative fuels goes back years. "I've often thought there was some better way to propel vehicles through internal combustion other than dead dinosaurs," he says. "I thought that when I retire I might just start blending my own fuels and see what happens-and I would either melt down an engine, discover something new or blow myself up."

Cole has owned and operated Bob Cole's Import Automotive Professionals, an automotive garage in Pensacola, for many years, and he's been honored as the NAPA/Automotive Service Representative regional technician of the year nine times. As a public servant with experience in the automotive industry, Cole brings a unique perspective to events like the Southeast Diesel Collaborative. "For instance, I noted that a cleaner-burning fuel can reduce the number of oil changes done to a vehicle per annum," he explains days after the event. "So if a fleet of semi-trucks can cut out so many oil changes a year-and we factor this in-let's not just talk about the negatives of going to another fuel, let's consider the good side. How many barrels of oil does that equate to? … How much cost in downtime does that save?"

County commissioners are responsible for managing various local operations-setting the budget, issuing building permits, etc.-as well as maintaining compliance with air quality standards, a responsibility which is of particular relevance to Cole. "The environment is very important to me, and air quality has a trickle-down effect-it's related to the water supply … [and] the strength of crops," Cole says.

Cole takes his responsibility to protect the beauty of Florida's fragile ecosystem, and the quality of life for its citizens, to heart. And he's a man of action who plays to his strengths. He's got an expert working knowledge of engines and fuels, and he's intensely devoted to seeing Santa Rosa County start using biodiesel. Cole has led efforts to implement a requirement that would require vehicles of the districts and public works within the county to run a B20 blend. "The plan is that eventually the board of commissioners will issue an order that requires the vehicles in these districts-dump trucks, graders, heavy equipment and the like-to run on the B20," Cole says. "Once we get that launched, the idea is to get the school board involved and our other constitutional officers on board. … [The] inspections departments, tax appraisers … all of these would have to start using biodiesel."

Enticing Site to Build
In addition to bringing the idea of a biodiesel mandate to Santa Rosa County, Cole has also been at the forefront of an effort to bring a large-scale biodiesel plant to the area. Cole began his quest by urging the county's economic development council to pursue a grant from the USDA, an idea that ended up landing the county $50,000 to complete a feasibility study. The Haas Center for Business Research & Economic Development at the University of West Florida handled the feasibility work, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of two primary sites within the county: one in a developing industrial park east of Milton and another further north that has some potential as a future oilseed crush site. The Haas Center's analysis has left county officials leaning toward the industrial park, and for good reason. "We have several things going for us," Cole says. "We have close proximity to a sea port, two rail spurs going into our industrial park … and easy access to Interstate 10. And we have Air Products producing methanol less than 10 miles from our industrial park."

Shannon Ogletree of the Santa Rosa Economic Development Council has worked closely with Cole in his efforts to draw would-be developers to Milton. In fact, she authored the document that garnered the USDA grant. Ogletree says160 acres of the Santa Rosa County industrial park have been equipped with rail access, which could persuade developers to build a biodiesel plant at the site. "We're trying to market this land to someone who would produce or distribute biodiesel," Ogletree explains. "With transportation costs rising, companies are starting to consider renewable fuels, so I think the [economic] impact of a biodiesel plant in Santa Rosa County would be significant."

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Bronson also says that the Santa Rosa area is the best-suited location in Florida for biodiesel production. "Biodiesel plants in Florida will most likely be located in the northwest corner of the state," Bronson says. "That's where we have a lot of our peanuts, soybeans and cotton. We can also pull in [feedstocks] from southern Georgia and eastern Alabama, so that provides us with an opportunity, certainly."

Sunshine State Strategy
In January, Bronson unveiled his "Farm to Fuel" program, a plan that outlines a strategy for Florida to become a leader in the effort to produce renewable fuels from crops. He says the vast amount of farm acreage in Florida, and the Sunshine State's ideal climate-which allows for nearly year-long cultivation-should be turning heads.

Bronson invited Cole to speak at a "Farm to Fuel" conference held in March in Florida's capital of Tallahassee. "Farm to Fuel" provides funding for research and development of biofuels processing technologies. "We found out that Commissioner Cole is working toward getting his county to put in more flex-fuel vehicles and hopefully reduce negative environmental effects," Bronson says. "He's looking at this the same way I am, in that we can accomplish a number of things-reduce air pollutants, reduce greenhouse gases, as well as [increase] efficiency of vehicles. Biodiesel is supposed to be a little more lubricating than fossil fuels, and farmers are interested because they would like to be able to run their equipment on it. So we've talked to John Deere, Ford and some of the other big manufacturers of heavy equipment to see what direction they are heading in."

The cooperation of original equipment manufacturers is crucial to the growth of the U.S. biodiesel industry, Cole says, explaining that it was a major talking point at the Southeast Diesel Collaborative in Atlanta. "We not only looked at things like retrofitting for emissions and eliminating idling at truck stops, but biodiesel was a big topic of conversation," Cole says. "[The Collaborative] asked for support from the engine companies-Cummins, Detroit Diesel, Caterpillar-and what was indicated was that it is very critical for biodiesel to [meet] ASTM [specifications] and [come from ] BQ-9000 [accredited producer or certified marketer]."

He continues, "One batch of bad biodiesel could spoil the growth of the industry … ruin engines … but there are those who will try to bring an inferior product to the market. There are people out there who aren't worried about the industry. They are just worried about their own bottom line. But you're going to have that in any industry, so it's going to be up to us to police ourselves and make sure that the quality of biodiesel produced is high."

Cole says that the end of cheap oil and gas is starting to put real pressure on finding sustainable ways to maintain the quality of living most Americans are accustomed to. He believes it is unfortunate that steps weren't taken decades ago to lessen America's dependence on foreign resources, protect its environment and increase vehicle efficiency. Cole, like many others, believes there is a patriotic aspect involved in the support of renewable fuels. "As an American and as an auto mechanic, I just slump back and I say, 'We should have climbed on this bandwagon 50 years ago,'" Cole says. "If you look at our pioneering inventors like Henry Ford, he developed a process for a vehicle to run on [biofuel]. The Czar of Russia had a Mercedes built with an engine that ran off of potato alcohol because the people of Russia grew potatoes. … The ways have been out there for years, but we haven't gone after them."

It is evident hearing Cole speak that he is a man who feels time has been lost, and that the pressure is now on America's biofuels industries to somehow start to make a difference. "Because of the lazy nature of Americans and [our] access to cheap fuel, we haven't gone out and explored what the options are. Basically that's what I blame it on. We have had it too good for too long-and today the reasons are here to explore alternative fuels."

Nicholas Zeman is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at nzeman or (701) 746-8385.
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