Coalition Cites Invalid Criticism of Jones Act

August 2010

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As the Deepwater Horizon oil cleanup in the Gulf continued last month, more and more news outlets picked up on the fact that the Jones Act, despite some false claims to the contrary, simply wasn’t any sort of impediment.

Administration officials – including the head of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command – and a prominent American maritime coalition reiterated that recent criticism of the Jones Act is untrue. The SIU and other U.S. maritime unions as well as the AFL-CIO Maritime Trades Department vigorously supported efforts to set the record straight, and continued doing so as this edition went to press.

Critics had charged that the Jones Act stood in the way of utilizing foreign vessels and skimmers in the relief effort. These claims were made despite the facts that the Jones Act doesn’t apply at the site of the spill, and foreign vessels have been used in the cleanup almost from the start.

Taking the lead in promoting the truth about the Jones Act is the Maritime Cabotage Task Force (MCTF), a coalition founded in 1995 to promote the U.S.-flag fleet engaged in domestic waterborne commerce. With more than 400 members, including the SIU, the MCTF is the largest coalition ever assembled to represent the domestic segment of the U.S. Merchant Marine.

On July 13, the MCTF pointed out that those leading and coordinating the oil-spill response as well as independent news organizations have said that the Jones Act is not preventing or delaying foreign vessels’ ability to assist with cleaning. The Jones Act mandates the use of American vessels and American workers in U.S. domestic maritime trade. However, it does not impede foreign oil skimmers, which already were being used in the cleanup effort.

The MCTF cited Retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander leading the cleanup effort, as saying “at no time” has the Jones Act inhibited the cleanup. The National Incident Command itself also reported that “in no case has any offer of assistance been declined because of the Jones Act or similar laws.”

Additionally, a U.S. Department of Transportation statement read, “To be absolutely clear...the Jones Act has not hindered the cleanup effort.”

“With frustration over the oil spill mounting, some have mistakenly blamed the Jones Act for impeding the pace of the cleanup. This is a false argument,” said Michael Roberts, Crowley Maritime Corporation’s senior vice president and general counsel and a board member of the MCTF. “The people running the cleanup, as well as independent fact-checkers, have concluded what those familiar with the Jones Act already know: The Jones Act is not in the way.”

“Many of those complaining that the Jones Act should be waived are ignoring the basic facts,” said Eric Smith, vice president and chief commercial officer, Overseas Shipholding Group, Inc., and another MCTF board member. “Thousands of American vessels are already at work, and hundreds more can be activated soon as the unified command identifies its needs for additional, suitable equipment. An arbitrary and broad Jones Act waiver is totally unnecessary, and would only result in sidelining those directly impacted by the spill – American workers – from assisting in the cleanup. The spill devastated the Gulf economy once already. A blanket waiver of the Jones Act would do further harm to that economy.”

All vessels working on the cleanup must meet the operational requirements of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Unified Command before being approved for use, so that only equipment and vessels that actually work with the type of oil and sea conditions associated with this spill are utilized.

On June 19, the National Incident Command set a goal of 752 for offshore and nearshore skimmers to respond to the spill. The total inventory of U.S. and foreign skimmers – plus orders for additional skimmers to be delivered within the next few weeks – as of mid-July stood at 1,072, more than 320 above the target. On June 29, the State Department accepted 22 offers of assistance from 12 foreign countries or entities to provide skimmers, booms and other equipment. Before that date, assistance from nine countries had already been accepted, including eight skimmers from Norway in early May.

Throughout the cleanup process, the National Incident Command has coordinated closely with the U.S. Maritime Administration, U.S. Customs & Border Protection, and the Departments of Defense, Energy and State to ensure that all waiver requests are processed expeditiously. Two preemptive Jones Act waivers have been granted that would allow a total of seven foreign-flagged vessels to move closer to shore should severe weather force an evacuation from the wellhead area. Roberts added that the Jones Act does not apply to skimming operations outside of three miles from shore, including near the well 50 miles from coastline. That is where the vast majority of skimming has occurred. Additionally, the Jones Act is not delaying the use of foreign skimmers that the National Incident Command and BP need for near shore skimming

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Offers of Foreign Aid Usually Carry ‘Serious Price Tag’

A report by the Associated Press and a recent roundup
of information done by called attention to a noteworthy aspect of the foreign assistance offered to the U.S. in the Gulf cleanup.

Intentionally or not, some of the media’s reporting on offers of foreign aid may have given the audience the impression that such assistance was free.

However, an AP report from June 18 pointed out, “U.S. disaster aid is almost always free of charge; other nations expect the U.S. to pay for help.”

In the case of foreign assistance for the Deepwater Horizon cleanup, the AP quoted a Coast Guard spokesman as saying, “These offers are not typically offers of aid. Normally, they are offers to sell resources to BP or the U.S. government.” said its research showed “all offers, except for a few, come with a serious price tag…. Reports claiming that the federal government has refused help are not only incorrect – foreign assistance has been utilized – but are also misleading: purchasing resources and expertise is vastly different from accepting ‘foreign aid.’”