Jones Act Critics Miss the Mark

Shoddy Reporting Paints Erroneous Picture of Vital Law

July 2010

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As the Deepwater Horizon saga dragged on through June, a vital United States maritime law – the Jones Act – suddenly became a hot topic in the media and, to lesser extent, in Congress.

Critics attacked President Obama for not waiving the Jones Act to supposedly open the door for additional assistance in the Gulf cleanup operations. At least one also charged that U.S. maritime unions were thwarting progress by their purported unwillingness to support a suspension of the law, which requires that all vessels operating between domestic ports be crewed, built, owned and flagged American.

Following that initial round of erroneous claims and inaccurate reporting, the truth gradually emerged. Statements from industry groups, senators, congressmen and the head of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, Admiral Thad Allen, exposed the critics’ arguments as flawed at best, as did certain news articles. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did the same.

For starters, Allen pointed out that as of mid-June, more than a dozen foreign-flag vessels already were assisting in the cleanup. No Jones Act waivers had been issued because none of the vessels required one to operate in that area. Presumably, that’s also why the government neither had submitted nor received any waiver requests.

Moreover, federal law includes allowances to help ensure an adequate supply of vessels during an emergency. For instance, the vessel “skimmers” operating more than three miles from shore also do not require Jones Act waivers. (The Deepwater Horizon spill is happening 50 miles from shore.)

Nevertheless, the Unified Command developed specific guidance to ensure accelerated processing of requests for Jones Act waivers should they be received.

As one reporter said of those clamoring to suspend the law, there is “just one problem with these arguments: They are almost entirely false.”

Indeed, the Maritime Cabotage Task Force (MCTF), the largest coalition in the history of the domestic American maritime industry, made it perfectly clear that the industry’s goals are, as always, what is best for the nation. In a statement issued June 11, the MCTF said, “The American maritime industry supports immediate action to address the unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf. Federal law called the Jones Act requires that American vessels be used for domestic transportation activities in the U.S., and countless American vessels are already responding in the Gulf. In addition, we know that many other American vessels are standing by ready to help. There are well-established federal procedures for waiving the Jones Act to bring in foreign vessels in those situations were American vessels are not available. The American maritime industry has not and will not stand in the way of the use of these well-established waiver procedures to address this crisis.”

Others including Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska) and Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) also helped clarify the situation. In a statement issued on June 16, Inouye said, “I was taken aback by the suggestion that we suspend the Jones Act to bring in foreign ships to deal with the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf. That is not necessary. American vessels from the Navy, Coast Guard, state and county governments are working with private citizens and foreign vessels in support of the clean-up effort. To suggest that we suspend the Jones Act to allow foreign ships into the Gulf is more about pushing a political agenda than any genuine interest in helping Gulf coast communities with their clean-up.”

Finally, still others wondered not why the Jones Act hadn’t been waived, but rather, why all available U.S.-flag, Jones Act-qualified vessels hadn’t been utilized in the cleanup. In particular, U.S. Rep. John Mica (Fla.), ranking Republican member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, urged that domestic operators be contacted immediately “to review both their assets and capability to be part of this important response.”

In May, the Transportation Institute (a Washington, D.C.-based coalition that promotes the Jones Act and other U.S. maritime laws) announced results of a study that demonstrated in a strong economy, Jones Act vessels will carry more than 1 billion tons of cargo, or more than 40 percent of all waterborne commerce in the United States. This activity generates $100.3 billion in economic output, adds another $45.9 billion to the value of U.S. economic output, and contributes $11.4 billion in federal, state and local taxes. Further, the Jones Act fleet generates nearly 500,000 family-sustaining jobs. Enacted in 1920, the Jones Act protects American’s national and economic security. In part, it does so by helping maintain a pool of well-trained, loyal, U.S.-citizen mariners who sail aboard all types of American-flag ships, including military support vessels.

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