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?
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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.
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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.
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