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

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    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.
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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.

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.]

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

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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."

Currently, 447 skimming boats are working the unabated spill area, the mass of which is now inching toward Florida. Unified Command last week implemented a "surge" strategy of moving the fleet to areas directly threatened by the spill.

Evidence built this week that Obama and the Unified Command are walking a political tightrope over the Jones Act and the role of foreign vessels in the Gulf oil spill cleanup. Some Republican congressmen, including Charles Djou of Hawaii, already oppose the Jones Act, saying it drives up consumer prices. Largely Democratic-leaning unions, meanwhile, support the act and are carefully gauging Washington's reaction.

Maritime industry spokesmen say boat owners and longshoremen – who are tied to the AFL-CIO, one of Obama's biggest union supporters – have no issue with waiving the act if US vessels can't be found to do the job. Yet, "There are American vessels that are completely equipped to deal with this situation with no instructions to do anything," Mark Ruge, who works with the Maritime Cabotage Task Force, tells Human Events blogger Robert B. Bluey.

In testimony last week to Congress, Ken Wells, CEO of the Offshore Marine Service Association, said the oil spill response threatens to "degrade" the Jones Act, even though the dozen or so foreign boats currently on the scene have American crews.

"We find that many of these vessels are blatantly ignoring the Jones Act," Mr. Wells testified. "Worse, we find that the agency charged with enforcing the Jones Act has failed to live up to its responsibilities to enforce the law and to interpret the law as Congress intended."

Proximity of the US skimming fleet could be complicating deployment, since many boats are staged along the West Coast and in Alaska. But with Obama yet to publicly address the practical and symbolic Jones Act issue, the confusion is part of what Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz calls an "improvised response" to the spill in part due to BP's lack of preparation for an unprecedented wellhead event as well as slowness by the administration to grasp the scope of the disaster.

Grasping to boost the spill response as BP tries to contain a runaway wellhead spewing up to 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf a day, Allen announced Friday that Unified Command is outfitting 2,753 locally owned boats with skimming equipment, a process that could take two months. That, at least, is likely to prove politically popular along the Gulf Coast, where many residents are clamoring for ways to help fight the spill – and to get paid doing it.

"This is something that is on a scale that far exceeds anything we've done in a domestic response before," Allen said.

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

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