Jones Act Complicates Messy Situation for Obama

A growing irritant for the Obama administration, the charge that it has not done enough to allow foreign vessels to help with the oil cleanup effort in the Gulf, will reach a House subcommittee today.

The Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee takes up the issue of foreign vessel operations in U.S. waters, a touchy subject for President Obama and critics who want his administration to waive the Jones Act. A handful of key maritime officials will testify, offering an opportunity for conservatives to ask pointed questions about the Gulf oil spill.

The Jones Act of 1920 regulates cargo shipping in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. In the past week, after reports that foreign vessels able and willing to assist in the Gulf cleanup were being turned away, Republicans have mounted a campaign to temporarily waive the regulations, as the Bush administration did in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Today’s hearing will feature Rear Admiral Kevin Cook of the U.S. Coast Guard and Deputy Maritime Administrator David Matsuda. A second panel of witnesses includes Steven Newman, president and chief executive of Transocean Ltd., Ken Wells, president of the Marine Offshore Service Association, and James Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association.

Matsuda, who is awaiting Senate confirmation for a promotion at the Maritime Administration, plays a critical role in the Jones Act waiver process. The head of any federal agency responsible for navigation or vessel inspection can grant a Jones Act waiver with Matsuda’s approval — a process that played out with then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in 2005.

So far the administration has rebuffed calls from Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) and other Republicans to waive the Jones Act. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday, "There are no pending requests for foreign vessels to come into the Gulf." Adm. Thad Allen, national incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said Friday that no one has asked for a Jones Act waiver.

While the administration might be technically correct that there are "no pending requests" for foreign skimmers or dredgers, LeMieux worries that the United States is sending the wrong message to our international allies. By issuing a blanket waiver, LeMieux said foreign vessels would be greeted with open arms as opposed to a "thanks but no thanks" attitude. LeMieux and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) asked Obama for a waiver in a letter last week.

Officials at the Maritime Administration did not return calls or e-mail messages inquiring about Jones Act waivers. Wells, who works in the Gulf region, said he was aware of at least one waiver request involving a foreign deck barge. It was rejected because the U.S. fleet could provide the same services.

Complicating matters for the Obama administration is the belief — prompted in part by Allen — that not all U.S. skimming vessels are actively working on the spill. "Nationally there are a little over 2,000 skimmers or skimming type vehicles out there that we — that are potentially available for use," Allen said Friday. He acknowledged at the same press conference that "we now have 400 skimmers on duty and around the Gulf."

Where are the other 1,600? And why aren’t they actively at work in the Gulf?

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) wants to know. As the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Tuesday to ask why the U.S. fleet hasn’t been fully mobilized.

"U.S.-flag vessels have the capacity to bolster the current oil skimming and removal taking place in the Gulf of Mexico," Mica wrote. "Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen oil products wash up on the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida while vessels, which could have been pressed into service, sit idle. This is unacceptable."

Meanwhile, other Republicans are training their sights on the Jones Act. Newly elected Rep. Charles Djou (R-Hawaii), who raised the issue during his recent campaign, vowed to introduce legislation exempting Hawaii from the Jones Act because it has reportedly resulted in higher costs for goods.

"I am disappointed," Djou said, "that the President has failed to waive the Jones Act for foreign ships, who want to assist in the cleanup efforts. There is no good reason to turn away international help in responding to this environmental catastrophe."

Jones Act experts contend the law doesn’t stand in the way of foreign vessels doing work in the Gulf. Because the law only covers a three-mile limit from the U.S. coast, foreign ships do not have to get a waiver to work near the site of the spill or other areas in need of skimming. In addition, the Oil Pollution Act gives the on-site coordinator from the U.S. Coast Guard the ability to use foreign skimmer vessels if "an adequate number and type of oil spill response vessels documented under the laws of the United States cannot be engaged to recover oil from an oil spill in or near those waters in a timely manner."

The bigger problem, said one Jones Act supporter, is the lack of direction for the U.S. fleet. "There are American vessels that are completely equipped to deal with this situation with no instructions to do anything," said Mark Ruge, who works with the Maritime Cabotage Task Force.