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.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Ships assisting at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil leak are seen off the Louisiana coast Tuesday. Pressure is mounting to waive the Jones Act and let more foreign skimmers and supertankers help with the Gulf oil spill cleanup.

As the Gulf oil spill grows, President Obama has laid out a bold Oval Office plan to make things right in the Gulf and change national energy policy in the process.

What Mr. Obama hasn't done is announce that he's calling in maritime mercenaries – foreign skimmers or Saudi supertankers – to help deal with the Gulf oil spill cleanup.

Well flow-rate estimates are now up to as many 60,000 barrels a day (2.5 million gallons), with about 18,000 barrels a day being captured by BP. Congressmen along the coast are pleading for a better and more coherent response, and pressure is growing to waive the protectionist Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (known as the Jones Act, for its sponsor), which blocks foreign fleets from helping in the Gulf.

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

Specifically, the Jones Act requires that any ships transporting goods from state to state be built in the US, crewed by Americans, and owned by Americans. On Monday, Sen. George LeMieux and Rep. Jeff Miller, both Florida Republicans, sent a letter to Obama requesting that he waive the act.

In response to such calls for more foreign help, the oil spill unified command on Tuesday streamlined the waiver process, adding that 15 foreign-flagged ships are already operating in the Gulf. More are on their way, according to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Nevertheless, some political scientists say that waiving the Jones Act could be a big symbolic step for Obama as he struggles to come to grips – not just with the spill, but with the other demands on his presidency.

"It's been an improvised response so far.... Any kind of dramatic step they can take is probably going to be beneficial," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

In his Oval Office speech Tuesday, Obama laid out a relief scenario where thousands of ships and tens of thousands of relief workers are deployed and more National Guard troops are on the way. If the spill gets into the Gulf's loop current, it could round Florida's cape, join the Gulf Stream, and potentially head up parts of the Atlantic coast. Obama tried to prepare Americans for further setbacks Tuesday night, stating that oil will continue to hit beaches and marshes.

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.

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."

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


Obama speech on BP oil spill a call to action for clean energy

Oil spill could be Gulf's biggest ever, new flow estimate suggests

The Gulf oil spill muddle: when oil nears shore, confusion begins

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