Maritime law expert: 'Totally not true' that Jones Act has blocked Gulf help

A GOP House oversight report regarding the Gulf oil spill set to be released soon contains a talking point which experts are calling "totally not true" and an "urban myth."

"The White House is not being forthcoming on what is actually happening with the Gulf oil spill response, and the effort to show that the administration is doing everything possible actually gets in the way, a report being released by the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee says," Michael McAulif reports for the New York Daily News.

In excerpts released early, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) argues that many of the assets that are supposed to be in place really are not; that the chain of command is confused, at best; that efforts to quiet criticism hinder the response; that foreign assets remain unused, and the planning has been inadequate for the hurricane season.

Issa, who has become one of the administration’s thorniest critics, had this to say: “This report reveals a stark contrast between the narrative being told by the Administration in Washington and the sobering realities and challenges that the people closest to this catastrophe are struggling to overcome. These testimonials from the people who are on the frontlines of this crisis have brought to light a bureaucratic quagmire that is exacerbating the response and clean-up effort - in a post-Katrina world, this is unimaginable and unacceptable. The evidence on the ground suggests that the White House has been more focused on the public relations of this crisis than with providing local officials the resources they need to deal with it.”

The White House will certainly disagree, and you have to take a report released by one party with a grain of salt. But there are at least claims here worth following up, and we suspect the rest of the Oversight Committee will be interested in doing so.

The last excerpt from Issa's report claims, "According to local officials, the decision to not waive the Jones Act has impaired Gulf Coast clean-up efforts. The most likely application of a broad-based Jones Act waiver would be for the operation of boats equipped with skimmers, which is one of the most effective tools to clean up the oil. Rear Admiral Jim Watson conceded in a briefing to Chairman Towns and Ranking Member Issa that the Coast Guard does not currently have access to a sufficient numbers of skimmers."

However, McClatchy Newspapers' William Douglas reports, "Maritime law experts, government officials and independent researchers say that the claim is false. The Jones Act isn't an impediment at all, they say, and it hasn't blocked anything."

"Totally not true," said Mark Ruge, counsel to the Maritime Cabotage Task Force, a coalition of U.S. shipbuilders, operators and labor unions. "It is simply an urban myth that the Jones Act is the problem."

In a news briefing last week, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said he'd received "no requests for Jones Act waivers" from foreign vessels or countries. "If the vessels are operating outside state waters, which is three miles and beyond, they don't require a waiver," he said.

...., a nonprofit website operated by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, analyzed claims that failure to waive the Jones Act is blocking foreign-flagged vessels from assisting in the Gulf. It concluded last week that "In reality, the Jones Act has yet to be an issue in the response efforts."

The Deepwater Horizon response team reported in a news release June 15 that 15 foreign-flagged ships were participating in the oil spill cleanup, said. "None of them needed a waiver because the Jones Act does not apply," it said.

"Some Democrats and union officials say that Republicans are trying to use the Gulf spill to kill what conservatives consider a protectionist law that hurts businesses," Douglas adds. More at McClatchy.

"The best course of action is to permanently repeal the Jones Act in order to boost the economy, saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars," McCain said last week, while introducing a bill to repeal the Jones Act.. "I hope my colleagues will join me in this effort to repeal this unnecessary, antiquated legislation in order to spur job creation and promote free trade."

Juliet Eilperin blogging for The Washington Post adds, "But administration officials have denied that the Jones Act has impeded foreign aid. In several instances, resistance from either oil giant BP or Louisiana officials has blocked the acceptance of such offers. Louisiana officials have specifically rejected the idea of hiring Dutch companies, who are more efficient than U.S. ones, to dredge sand berms off the state's coast."

The Washington Post reported last month

A plan by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) to create sand berms to keep oil from reaching the coastline originally came from the marine contractor Van Oord and the research institute Deltares, both in the Netherlands. BP pledged $360 million for the plan, but U.S. dredging companies -- which have less than one-fifth of the capacity of Dutch dredging firms -- have objected to foreign companies' participation.

Garret Graves, who chairs Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, wrote in an e-mail that state officials "have made it clear to our contractors from the beginning that we want to use American dredges to complete this sand berm as quickly as possible . . . Ultimately, any effort to expedite these berms will be fully considered, but we remain committed to our American companies."

In the meantime, governments around the world are mobilizing help. In addition to boom, Canada has dispatched an aircraft for surveillance flights as well as several technical experts. Japan is still offering to send boom; the Swedish Coast Guard said it can send three ships that can each collect 370 barrels of oil an hour, but it is waiting to hear from the U.S. government or BP.