The Jones Act and the Oil Spill…Not What You Think

gCaptain beat me to the punch on writing about the Jones Act as it relates to the oil spill.  The Jones Act, actually Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 192o, has come under criticism for potentially curtailing the United State’s oil spill response.

In short, US Maritime shipping has the following requirements:

  • US Owned
  • US Flagged
  • US Built
  • Crewed by Americans

So, unless your vessel meets all of the above requirements, you are not able to ship cargo between US Ports. Looking to ship US-made BMWs from Charleston to New York by sea, then you need to ship on a Jones Act complaint vessel. And given that building a ship in the US is extremely expensive, your choices are limited.

Why does the Jones Act apply to clean up vessels?

It certainly does. These vessels are going to have to operate in waters that are under US control. They will call US ports, go to sea and return to the US without making a foreign voyage/ calling a foreign port. I would call that domestic activity

But the debate rages on about whether the Jones Act is negatively impacting the clean up. On June 10th we reported that the Flanders Today reported the Jones Act preventing Belgian companies from aiding.

Both Jan De Nul and DEME also own vessels that can suck up oil slicks at a depth of 500 feet, as well as vessels that can skim oil off the surface. The companies say that the fact that the Americans have not accepted their proposed assistance is down to two reasons – that the US authorities are reluctant to admit that somebody else has better equipment and the protection of the American market through the protectionist 1920 Jones Act, prohibiting foreign dredging companies from operating in US waters.

Fox News also asks why Obama won’t waive the Jones Act stating that it has indeed hampered the efforts in the Gulf.

But unlike his predecessor, President Obama has declined to suspend the law, even temporarily.
Obama’s decision has turned into a public relations headache for an administration already reeling from its oversight of the oil spill. European allies, longtime opponents of the Jones Act, have asserted they were turned away when making offers of assistance. The State Department acknowledges it has had 21 aid offers from 17 countries.

But wait…has the Jones Act actually prevented negavitely impacted our clean up?

From gCaptain…

Just this morning I read this story from The Maritime Executive which denies that the Jones Act is negatively impacting the cleanup.

Some have criticized the Jones Act, which requires the use of American vessels for transportation in domestic commerce, for hindering the Gulf clean-up. Not true, said the NIC and the Coast Guard.

“In no case has the Federal On Scene Coordinator (FOSC) 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,” said a June 17 NIC Fact Sheet

The NIC Fact Sheet noted that foreign vessels from many nations are already working in the Gulf. The Jones Act only applies within three miles of shore. [Note: they might want to clarify that comment] Therefore, foreign skimmers, along with American skimmers, are already at work beyond three miles. The Deepwater Horizon spill is occurring 50 miles from shore, and the vast majority of oil is beyond 3 miles. – The Maritime Executive (Click to read the entire article)

From a local NPR/PBS affiliate

Retired Coast Guard Captain Dennis Bryant of Gainesville practiced maritime law for 15 years…Some lawmakers say they’ve heard the Jones Act is stopping foreign oil skimmers from helping with the oil spill cleanup. But Bryant says the law probably isn’t to blame. “The impediment, if there is one, has been that there hasn’t been a valid offer for a foreign response vessel,” he notes…”The amount of oil spill response vessels in the world is not that great.” Bryant also points out that, since the strictest provisions of the Jones Act only apply within 3 miles of the US coast, it’s easier for foreign ships to help with cleanup operations farther out in the Gulf, near the Deepwater Horizon well itself. In fact, the ship siphoning oil from Deepwater Horizon’s broken wellhead is a foreign-flagged ship; the Discoverer Enterprise was built in Spain and flies the Marshall Islands flag. Also, Bryant says the Jones Act waiver process has been fast-tracked like it was during Hurricane Katrina, so if any foreign ship wants to help closer to the shore, it could have a waiver within 48 hours.

Media matters has also went after Fox News for perpetuating this falsehood noting that the

National Incident Commander has repeatedly stated that foreign vessels are operating in the Gulf, that they have not yet “seen any need to waive the Jones Act,” and that they are prepared to process case-by-case waivers if needed.

Likewise White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week “that we have not had [a] problem” with the Jones Act. Indeed, the fact sheet available from the Deepwater Horizon Response site claims “Currently 15 foreign-flagged vessels are involved in the largest response to an oil spill in U.S. history.”

Dr. M (1801 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.

10 Replies to “The Jones Act and the Oil Spill…Not What You Think”

  1. I don’t particularly care if Obama waves the Jones Act, so long as he waives it.

  2. Sec. 55113 of the Jones Act exempts oil spill response vessels, if the incident Commander (Adm. Allen) certifies that adequate US vessels of that type are not readily available. So the process of waiver is provided for within, not outside of, the legislation. There is no need whatever for Obama to suspend the Act. So far, no one has even asked for a case-by-case waiver.

    The whole uproar probably originated as political spin, but we have MSM figures treating the disinformation as fact.

  3. It still is not clear if the president refused to waive the Jones act or not and/or prevented the European ships from helping.

  4. waive – to relinquish
    wave – thing that washes over the bow

    Oh I see now that someone else mentioned this. I wouldn’t mention it again, BUT… people are now on FB using the word “wave” in the wrong context, probably because they read it elsewhere…

  5. What is this about “wave”? I can’t find it in the text. Either I am overlooking it (even with search), it has since been corrected or some of the critics are simply anticipating a mistake.
    There is apparently no need to “waive” the Jones Act but perhaps Obama should do it simply to get some of the political pollution out of the air.
    But until the oil flow is stopped, nothing else really matters.

  6. gcaptain said, “The Jones Act only applies within three miles of shore. [Note: they might want to clarify that comment] Therefore, foreign skimmers, along with American skimmers, are already at work beyond three miles. The Deepwater Horizon spill is occurring 50 miles from shore, and the vast majority of oil is beyond 3 miles”

    I believe you will find the Jones act applies to the “territorial waters” of the United States. In the 1920s, when the Jones act was written into law, those territorial waters extended 3 miles from shore. Since 1982 the United Nations law of the sea defines “territorial waters” as “a belt of coastal waters extending twelve nautical miles from mean shore line. These waters are considered sovereign territory of the state owning the land. In addition and in response to several nations (including the US) arbitrarily declaring the extension of their “territorial waters” 100 to 200 nautical miles from shore, the UN defined an “Exclusive Economic Zone” extending 200 nautical miles from the defined shoreline. In this zone, “a coastal nation has control of all economic resources including, fishing, mining, oil exploration, and responsibility for any pollution of or by these resources.” The Jones act has been considered by many as covering this economic zone. This has not been tested in the courts. This is a very fuzzy area of maritime law which is still being hotly debated by many affected nations.

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