A year of unprecedented challenges nevertheless contained some potentially fantastic news for the United States maritime industry.
On Dec. 3, the House and Senate Armed Services committees released the conference report agreement for the William M. “Mac” Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021. At press time, both the House and Senate were expected to pass the legislation and send it to the president.
Although President Trump had expressed concerns about the bill completely unrelated to maritime, its prospects appeared favorable.
Highlighting the NDAA is a new, 10-vessel Tanker Security Fleet patterned after the well-proven Maritime Security Program (MSP). The new program would allow owners of eligible product tankers to apply for a $6 million per year stipend in exchange for making the vessels available to the U.S. Department of Defense in times of war or national emergency.
The legislation also includes a temporary financial boost for MSP participants, in order to offset some costs related to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The aforementioned components were aggressively backed by the SIU, as is a section that strengthens cargo preference requirements for the movement of military cargoes. Another part of the bill calls for a new study regarding federal compliance with existing civilian and military cargo preference rules.
American shipyards also stand to benefit from the NDAA, because the measure strengthens existing requirements that vessels under charter to the United States be repaired or modified in U.S. yards during the length of the charter.
Moreover, the bill facilitates the purchase of existing, foreign-built vessels to recapitalize the government-owned reserve fleet.
Other highlights include the establishment of a new Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief program aimed at offering monetary help to the industry during emergencies. According to the bill’s text, eligible participants include vessel owners and operators, shipyards, maritime training facilities and others.
Finally, the bill includes new stipulations to reinforce the Jones Act, both when it comes to the law’s application to wind farms and when waivers may be requested.
During the December SIU membership meeting in Piney Point, Maryland, SIU Executive Vice President Augie Tellez updated Seafarers on the bill and underscored the vital roles played by U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) in advancing pro-maritime components.
“This bill is a gigantic win for our industry, and the maritime sections collectively are an equally big victory for our country,” Tellez stated.
SIU Political and Legislative Director Brian Schoeneman said, “The wins we’ve achieved for maritime in this bill highlight the SIU’s continuing, effective bipartisan approach. Working closely with members on both sides of the aisle, and in both the House and Senate, made this victory possible.”
As previously reported, 34 members of Congress in mid-September sent a bipartisan letter backing the new Tanker Security Fleet to Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith (D-Washington), and House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).
The provision creating the new program would initially involve 10 privately owned, militarily useful U.S.-flag product tankers crewed by American merchant mariners.
“We are deeply concerned about the decline in the number of militarily useful commercial vessels operating under the U.S. flag and, consequently, in the number of trained and qualified American merchant mariners available to crew the vessels needed by the Department of Defense to protect America’s interests and to support American troops deployed around the world,” the legislators wrote. “A tanker security program … would begin to rectify this situation, adding additional commercial vessels to the U.S.-flag fleet and creating new jobs for American mariners. This program … represents an important maritime policy initiative not only for the maritime workforce but for our nation’s commercial sealift readiness capability.”
The writers pointed out that Lt. Gen. John Broadmeadow (USMC), while serving in 2019 as deputy commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, told Congress “a 10-tanker program will be a welcome start to begin to address the gap in U.S.-flagged bulk fuel delivery.”
The letter concluded, “Establishing a tanker security fleet would begin to reduce our military’s reliance on foreign-flag vessels by ensuring that a greater portion of the fuel needed by the Department of Defense is transported by American mariners on U.S.- flag vessels. It would not promote or expand the production of petroleum products but would instead begin to end America’s almost total reliance on foreign flag-of-convenience vessels to meet the energy needs of the Department of Defense at sea and around the world.”