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Jones Act: Maritime politics strain Gulf oil spill cleanup

Pressure is building for President Obama to lift a 1920 protectionist law so that high-tech foreign oil skimmers can help with the Gulf oil spill. Why are 1,500 available US oil skimmers not on the scene?

By Staff writer / June 19, 2010

A fleet of oil skimmers collect oil from the broken oil well under the surface at the Gulf oil spill site, approximately 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The Coast Guard is calling in more skimming boats and equipment from the Netherlands, Norway, France, and Spain.

Sean Gardner/Reuters



The Coast Guard Friday "redoubled" efforts to keep the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from impacting Gulf states by calling in more skimming boats and equipment from the Netherlands, Norway, France, and Spain after previously telling one Dutch official "Thanks, but no thanks," to an offer of help.

That revelation comes as Florida lawmakers beg for more skimmers to ward off Gulf spill oil approaching the state's white sand beaches and as the Unified Command – led by Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen – struggles with chain-of-command issues as BP changes its on-scene leadership.

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The news of more foreign ships steaming toward the Gulf also comes amid a heated political debate over the role of the 1920 Jones Act, a protectionist law that prohibits foreign-flagged boats and crews from doing port-to-port duty within 3 miles of the US coast.

On Friday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas filed legislation to waive the Jones Act to welcome more high-tech foreign clean-up boats, saying the Jones Act is standing in the way. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week "that we have not had [a] problem" with the Jones Act. At the same time, US marine interests complain that up to 1,500 US-flagged skimmers sit idle, and should be used first. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph misspelled the Texas senator's name.]

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"We are still receiving reports of foreign-flagged vessels being turned away or their offers of assistance hanging in limbo. That should not be the case," Sen. George LeMieux (R) of Florida wrote to President Obama Friday. "There is a breakdown of communication and it is critically important the situation get fixed and we see an armada of skimmers at work."

Confusion has steadily built around the exact US skimmer strategy and the role of the 1920 Jones Act. President Bush waived the act temporarily to allow foreign ships to help with the hurricane Katrina relief effort.

Only a day after Fox News quoted Admiral Allen saying, "To date, nobody has come for a Jones Act waiver," Coast Guard Capt. Roger Laferriere, the second-in-command, told ABC World News that both Allen and Mr. Obama had, in fact, worked to waive the Jones Act to allow more foreign vessels to attack the spill.

"We have exhausted all our East Coast supply of skimming vessels," Captain Laferriere said. "We are now looking at Norway, France, Spain, and other European vessels."