In the wake of the gulf oil spill, President Obama has been criticized for failing to temporarily waive the Jones Act, which governs the use of foreign vessels in American waters. The act requires that vessels operating in American waters be American-built and -owned.
But while supporters of the legislation acknowledge the need to temporarily ignore the act in order to deal with the oil spill and Florida leaders press the federal government for an exemption, no waiver has yet been granted.
Many maritime labor unions support the Jones Act since it protects American jobs, but some are relenting in the face of the full-scale gulf disaster. The Martime Cabotage Task Force (a group essentially designed to extoll the benefits of the Jones Act) said in a press release it would not stand in the way of admitting foreign vessels into the gulf, so long as American vessels were not up to par: “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.”
In order for a temporary waiver to be approved, though, it must be deemed to be in the interest of national defense. Since the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, either the Secreteray of Homeland Security must waive the act or be compelled to do so “by the head of another government agency.”
In September 2005, former President George W. Bush requested Secretary Chertoff temporarily waive the act twice — three days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and again after Hurricane Rita made landfall. Combined, the waivers allowed for 48 days free of Jones Act restrictions — time that allowed for hundreds of thousands of barrels of fuel to be imported to New Orleans citizens who were in dire need of help. Any waiver granted in connection to the oil spill would allow for additional skimmers and equipment to aid clean-up efforts off the coasts of Lousiana, Alabama and Florida.
Just last Monday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. has received at least 21 aid offers from 17 different countries. And although the administration is currently using several foreign vessels to help with the clean-up effort (including skimming boats from Mexico and Norway as well as oil-gathering devices from the Dutch), many feel that this is simply not enough to combat an ever-growing problem.
During a House subcommittee meeting last Thursday, many Florida officials were outspoken in their stance that the Jones Act should be lifted. Rep. Corrine Brown, from Florida’s District 3, appeared visibly worried about the failure of the Obama administration to issue a temporarry waiver: “We are in emergency mode and we need skimmers. We need the big ones. I understand they’re available in other countries. … We’re talking about protecting Florida’s coast.”
And on Friday, Texas Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchinson and John Cornyn, along with Florida Sen. George LeMiuex, introduced a bill — titled WAIVER (Water Assistance from International Vessels for Emergency Response) — that would temporarily waive the Jones Act and allow foreign vessels to enter the gulf.
There are currently 447 skimming boats being used in the spill area, but 1,500 remain unused. Many who support a Jones Act waiver say that foreign vessels are better equipped to handle such a disaster. Though Fox News quoted Thad Allen as saying that no one has asked for a waiver, Coast Guard Captain Roger Laferriere has since stated that both Allen and President Obama are, in fact, actively working to waive the act.