President Trump’s administration has been reported to be considering a waiver of the Jones Act, which would remove the requirement that only U.S. ships bring liquefied natural gas to Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican government is asking for the waiver, which may be for ten years, to allow them easier, more affordable access to more fuel.
What is the Jones Act?
Officially known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act was intended to help create and maintain a merchant marine fleet for the U.S. The part of the law that is now in question is the requirement that all ships that move cargo between points in the U.S. be flagged in the U.S., and also U.S. built and owned. The ships must also be mostly crewed by U.S. workers.
These requirements support a strong maritime industry in the U.S., which is important for both civilian workers and the military. It ensures that ships are prepared to be used in times of war, if necessary, and also that maritime jobs, like building and crewing ships, go to U.S. workers.
Why Puerto Rico Wants a Waiver
Because Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, ships bringing supplies to the island must adhere to the requirements of the Jones Act. Getting goods to the island costs more, and those higher costs are passed on to consumers. Residents and officials in Alaska and Hawaii have also long complained about this consequence of the Jones Act. International shipping is often cheaper and more efficient for these more distant states and territories, but it is not an option with the Jones Act requirements.
Puerto Rico has been struggling to recover from hurricane Maria, desperately needing more supplies delivered. In 2017 President Trump waived the Jones Act for just ten days to help get supplies to the island more quickly. Now, the president is being asked to waive it again to help Puerto Rico get more much-needed natural gas.
Critics of the Waiver
There are many supporters of waiving the Jones Act, at least for the special case of bringing fuel to Puerto Rico, but there are detractors too. Many people involved in the maritime industry believe that any waiver of the law will put hundreds or thousands of American jobs at risk.
The requirement of the Jones Act that the movement of goods between American ports largely involve U.S. workers helps to support a strong industry and American jobs. With the law waived, international ships, crewed by workers from anywhere will compete with and likely win over U.S. ships. Essentially anyone working in the maritime industry, maritime and shipping companies and trade organizations are against any waiver of the law.
Petroleum industry companies and groups in the U.S. are also opposed to a waiver. The result would be more international fuel being brought to Puerto Rico instead of U.S. natural gas. All industry groups in favor of the Jones Act and against the waiver believe that waiving the law would devastate a big part of the U.S. economy.
Whether the waiver will happen or not remains to be seen. President Trump is being pressured on both sides, by both supporters and opponents of the Jones Act. In the meantime, Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover.