Are unions Dock Blocking oil cleanup ships in the Gulf of Mexico?

Mike Riggs Contributor
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President Obama is impeding clean-up efforts in the Gulf by kowtowing to unions and members of the American maritime industry, critics have charged in recent days. At issue is the president’s refusal to waive the Jones Act, a century-old law that effectively bars foreign-owned ships from moving between U.S. ports, a necessary component of participating in the cleanup effort.

When asked why President Obama hasn’t waived the Jones Act — which President Bush put on hold to facilitate Katrina rescue efforts — White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said a suspension wasn’t necessary.

But Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, and others say the act is keeping boats from getting on the water to lay boom and skim oil. In a letter to the Coast Guard’s Thad Allen, Nelson wrote:

Admiral, I believe the orange mousse of oil that is now in Florida’s waters is more than enough evidence that we need to take advantage of every appropriate global resource. Please advise as to whether we are taking full advantage of the offers of assistance from other countries.

Members of the American shipping industry, (arguably the sole beneficiary of Jones) are open to waiving the Jones Act in dire circumstances, but insist that as of right now: “American vessels are doing the job.”

“Countless American vessels are already responding in the Gulf. In addition, we know that many other American vessels are standing by ready to help,” reads a statement released Friday by the Maritime Cabotage Task Force, a lobbying group that represents scores of both unionized and nonunionized employees and employers in the American maritime industry.

The presser goes on to say that the maritime industry “has not and will not stand in the way of the use of these well-established waiver procedures to address this crisis,” so long as the Obama administration can prove that there aren’t American vessels willing to help but waiting in the wings.

MTCF spokesman Mark Ruge confirms that his organization, which represents groups as disparate as the AFL-CIO and the Goodtime Cruise Line, has communicated its position to White House officials.

“I think the reason the administration has not waived the Jones act yet is because it’s not a situation where they need to,” Ruge said. “American vessels are doing the job. I’m assuming that we’ll see a point where there might not be any American vessels, and at that point, I’m sure they’ll waive the Jones act.”

Skeptics charge that the maritime industry is behind Obama’s refusal to waive the act.  “The unions see it as … protecting jobs,” the Heritage Foundation’s Joseph Carafano told FOX News. “They hate when the Jones Act gets waived, and they pound on politicians when they do that. So … are we giving in to unions and not doing everything we can, or is there some kind of impediment that we don’t know about?”

When asked by reporters Thursday if the Jones Act was impeding cleanup efforts in the Gulf, Gibbs said, “We are using equipment and vessels from countries like Norway, Canada, the Netherlands. There has not been any problem with this. If there is the need for any type of waiver, that would obviously be granted. But this — we’ve not had that problem thus far in the Gulf.”

“If we have a reason to consider a waiver of the Jones Act, we certainly will do that.” Allen said this week. “ None has been presented to me.”