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Jones Act: Does Gulf oil spill cleanup need more foreign boats?

The Jones Act prevents foreign skimmers and tankers from helping with the Gulf oil spill cleanup. But federal officials have streamlined waivers to make it easier for foreign ships to respond.

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But the president's assurances come against a backdrop of reports of misused and ineffective boom, a scarcity of skimmers, and some of the workers, according to one labor supplier quoted by the New York Times, sitting under trees and collecting checks. Dissatisfied with the federal response, Louisiana is moving ahead with its own plans to protect its coast. And in one small Alabama town, a frustrated volunteer fire chief has risked jail for rallying a local response to oncoming oil.

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Despite this frustration, the Coast Guard says it has received no requests to waive the Jones Act – from the president or from anyone else.

“While we have not seen any need to waive the Jones Act as part of this historic response, we continue to prepare for all possible scenarios,” Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said in a unified command press release Tuesday. “Should any waivers be needed, we are prepared to process them as quickly as possible to allow vital spill response activities being undertaken by foreign-flagged vessels to continue without delay.”

Perhaps the boldest use of the Jones Act waiver would be to enlist foreign supertankers to suck up water and oil and transfer it to shore, where it can be separated. It's been reported that Saudi Arabia used its fleet of supertankers to clean up a massive spill in the Persian Gulf in the 1990s.

One problem: diverting tankers per a presidential request could roil global oil markets.

Besides, the US maritime industry says the US has enough vessels on hand.

"The Jones Act fleet is one of the largest in the world, so there are plenty of US flag vessels right now hard at work, more ready to go to work," says Glen Nekvasil, a spokesman for the Maritime Cabotage Task Force, a consortium of shipbuilders, ship owners, and merchant marines based in Washington. "But if an instance arises where there is no qualified Jones Act vessel, we will not stand in the way of a waiver."

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