Gulf coast senators introduce bill to allow foreign ships to help with BP oil spill clean-up

Chris Moody Contributor
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Three Republican senators from states on the Gulf of Mexico have introduced a bill they say will make it easier for the United States to accept foreign ships to help the BP oil spill clean-up effort.

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison joined with Florida Senator George LeMieux and John Cornyn of Texas to draft a bill that would temporarily suspend the Jones Act in the Gulf region, which they say is keeping foreign ships from offering aid. The 90-year-old law, which already includes a provision that allows waivers for foreign ships on a case-by-case basis, mandates that vessels may only partake in coastwise transport between U.S. ports if they are “constructed in the United States, owned by United States citizens and crewed by United States citizens and/or permanent residents.” The bill’s sponsors say that given the emergency situation, the provisions currently in place do not go far enough.

“With still only 20 skimmers off the coast of Florida, we need to expedite additional assistance,” LeMieux said.  “Any vessels ready to help should be allowed into the Gulf.”

Former President Bush temporarily suspended the law in the wake of hurricane disasters in 2005. According to Keith Hennessy, who served as Bush’s deputy at the White House National Economic Council at the time, the waiver’s actual impact was “small and diffuse … [but] every little bit helped.” The senators say they are taking action because President Obama has not issued an executive order to waive the protectionist law.

“The administration has failed to issue a waiver on the Jones Act, which is blockading foreign vessels from working with their American counterparts to remove the oil from the waters of the Gulf,” said Hutchison.  “The federal response to this spill has been unacceptable, and we cannot wait around until the disaster gets worse.”

Despite reports that some foreign aid has been turned away, a June 15 letter from U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen to Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson explained that all international offers that meet a “validated operational need” have been accepted, including skimmers from Mexico. Nelson’s office concluded that there is no need for any legislation for a blanket waiver.

“In no case has the [Federal On Scene Coordinator] or [Unified Area Command] declined to request assistance or accept offers of assistance of foreign vessels that meet an operational need because the Jones Act was implicated,” Allen wrote. “To date, no Jones Act waivers have been necessary because foreign flagged vessels involved in the BP Deepwater Horizon response have not been engaged in activities that would require such a waiver.”

Supporters of a blanket waiver say the current process involves more red tape than necessary.

“This bill will provide for a streamlined waiver process for any foreign vessel willing and able to help mitigate the impacts of the spill,” said LeMieux. “We can no longer wait for the Administration to work through its bureaucracy.”

A spokesman for the maritime industry said that the so-called barriers to getting foreign ships into the Gulf are much lower than reported.

“The waiver itself is not cumbersome at all,” said Mark Ruge of the Maritime Cabotage Task Force, adding that ships that operate beyond three miles of shore do not even need a Jones Act waiver.

Still, Hutchison said in a radio interview Monday that there was no reason why the U.S. should not be as open as possible to foreign aid.

“It’s just nonsense to not have every hand on deck,” she said.

Chris Moody