Reports that the Obama administration turned down early help offered by the Netherlands to help with the Gulf oil cleanup has prompted criticism that the president is responding to pressure by labor unions. While the dissing of the early Dutch offer is troublesome, it does not reflect a policy of blocking foreign-flag vessels, 15 of which are presently involved in the cleanup. More are on their way.
The administration’s "Thanks, but no thanks," as recalled by the Netherlands consul general in Houston, was blasted on June 8 by a Houston Chronicle business columnist who wrongly cited adherence to the protectionist 1920 Merchant Marine Act, known as the Jones Act, as the reason. Hawaii’s U.S. Rep. Charles Djou joined a sudden chorus calling for a Jones Act waiver for all oil spill assistance by foreign vessels.
Critics of President Barack Obama point out that President George W. Bush waived the Jones Act’s requirements in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to allow foreign ships to provide assistance. The Jones Act essentially prohibits foreign-flagged ships from transporting goods from one U.S. port to another, and Bush explained that the waiver would help American ships "move the oil and gasoline to where it’s needed" because of damaged pipelines.
The nature of foreign assistance in combating today’s oil spill is entirely different.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the U.S. commander overseeing the oil cleanup, said this week that no Jones Act waiver had been granted because none of the foreign-flagged vessels needed a waiver to conduct oil spill cleanup operations in the Gulf of Mexico. U.S. Customs and Border Protection determines whether the Jones Act applies to the activities of a foreign-flagged vessel.
"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," Allen said. "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."
However misguided the assumption about initial rejection of the Netherlands offer—the Dutch now are helping in the effort—Djou saw and seized the opportunity to link the issue to his desire to exempt Hawaii from the Jones Act.
Ed Case also called for such an exemption when he was in the U.S. House from 2002 to 2007, but the rest of Hawaii’s congressional delegation has been opposed.
Hawaii deserves to be exempt from the Jones Act because it receives most goods by ship at prices reflecting noncompetitive high freight rates. Case’s proposal would have required only that shippers between Hawaii and U.S. mainland ports comply with U.S. law, including labor and environmental requirements. Similar legislation to be introduced by Djou would be worthwhile, even if false curtains were used to open the issue.