Grassroot Institute of Hawaii requests Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico

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The U.S. territory is again facing a humanitarian crisis after being hit by Hurricane Fiona, but the 1920 federal law is hindering outside aid

HONOLULU, Sept. 27, 2022 >> The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii today asked that President Joe Biden use his authority to give Puerto Rico a one-year waiver from the Jones Act to assist in recovery efforts after Hurricane Fiona.[1]

The latest hurricane to hit the U.S. territory smashed into the island on Sept. 18, flooding vast parts of it, killing 21 residents and leaving almost 1 million people without electricity. The disaster threatens to stunt the island’s growth for years to come, especially since Puerto Rico has not fully recovered after Hurricane Maria’s devastation in 2017.[2]

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Keli‘i Akina, president and CEO of the Institute, said, “A one-year waiver from the 102-year-old maritime law is a humanitarian necessity, important to relieving suffering and helping the 3 million people of Puerto Rico rebuild and recover.”

Akina noted that the Jones Act is often heralded as a bulwark for the U.S. maritime industry and critical to U.S. national security. But its effectiveness at achieving these goals is in serious dispute.

“If U.S. security really does depend on a privately owned fleet, there must be a more equitable way to pay for such a policy,” Akina said. “Asking the residents of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam and other areas dependent on ocean shipping to pay for a law that ostensibly benefits the entire country is simply unfair.

“But more than being unfair,” he continued, “the Jones Act hinders the U.S. military’s ability to provide disaster assistance. Both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Puerto Rico’s National Guard have mobilized in Puerto Rico, and their ability to effectively respond with supplies from the mainland will be limited by high Jones Act shipping costs.”

Current law allows the Secretary of Defense to waive the Jones Act in order to “address an immediate adverse effect on military operations,” and the president could direct U.S.Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to do just that.[3]

The Institute joins an ever-growing group of media outlets, advocacy organizations and members of Congress and local governments who have been calling for Jones Act relief for Puerto Rico.

Last week, a group of eight congressional Democratic lawmakers called on Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to grant Puerto Rico a one-year waiver from the law.[4]

“The island was already suffering financial difficulties when Hurricane Fiona delivered another crippling blow,” the group wrote.

The New York City Council also weighed in, writing to Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that, “A waiver for Puerto Rico during this time will allow a faster and cheaper supply of essentials to reach the islands.”[5]

In the past few days, the editorial boards of The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Examiner have also criticized the Jones Act.

“Once again, Puerto Ricans are paying the price for an antiquated shipping law that makes food and other goods more expensive on the island,” The Boston Globe said. “The law is inexcusable in ordinary times — and downright scandalous now, when the island is reeling from yet another natural disaster.”[6]

Said The Washington Post: “The Jones Act has not stopped the long-term decline of U.S. shipbuilding or the rise of Asian and European competitors that now dominate global sealift capacity. But by limiting Puerto Rico’s choices, it has driven up the island’s import costs.”[7]

In today’s Wall Street Journal, the editors noted that, “Puerto Rico is the home of Fort Buchanan, the U.S. Army’s ‘Sentinel of the Caribbean,’ so perhaps there’s an argument that it harms national defense if the island is in chaos.”[8]

The Washington Examiner wrote: “In normal times, the Jones Act causes consumers to pay needlessly high prices. In times of crisis, it can have tragic consequences, which is what is happening in Puerto Rico right now.”[9]

These latest calls for a Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico come on the heels of the federal government being asked to grant Jones Act relief to the six states of New England. The governors of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont asked in July for a Jones Act waiver so their states could be sure of obtaining enough liquid natural gas during the coming winter.[10]

Currently there are no Jones Act-compliant LNG tankers in the U.S. fleet to transport LNG to other parts of the country from its source on the Gulf Coast, and even if a U.S. shipyard could build one, it would likely cost up to $500 more than the world price — and certainly not be ready by this winter.[11]

Earlier this year, Akina wrote the president requesting a Jones Act waiver for Hawaii, which had just been cut off from fuel imports from Russia as part of America’s response to that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Hawaii had been importing up to a third of its oil each year from Russia because the Jones Act makes it more expensive to buy oil from U.S. sources. Without access to Russian imports, Hawaii faced significantly higher fuel costs from having to use Jones Act ships, even though U.S. oil might have cost less.[12]

U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii also asked for a Jones Act waiver,[13] and in May, so did the Maui County Council.[14] Unfortunately, the Biden administration did not issue one.

Akina said the latest calls for Jones Act reform confirm that the Grassroot Institute, Case and the Maui County Council were on the right track.

Just a month ago, on his ThinkTech Hawaii program “Hawaii Together,” Akina interviewed Luis Ponce of Boricuas Unidos en la Diaspora, who explained why the Jones Act poses a permanent danger to the people of Puerto Rico.

“We don’t have the proper tools, the proper vessels or the proper legislation to actually keep Puerto Rico stocked, keep Puerto Rico safe during an emergency, like with [Hurricane] Maria or an even greater natural disaster, which everybody’s expecting,” Ponce said.[15]

Akina said that a Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico would be an important recognition at the highest levels of government of the harms the 1920 law imposes on all U.S. communities, especially noncontiguous states and territories such as Puerto Rico and Hawaii that do not have access to other forms of transport, such as trucks and trains.

“As the dire situation in Puerto Rico demonstrates once again, the Jones Act is an impediment to economic prosperity in good times and an actual humanitarian threat during times of crisis,” Akina wrote in his Sept. 27 letter to Biden.

“I sincerely hope you will ignore the small but powerful Jones Act constituency and grant waivers for the greater good of Puerto Rico and all Americans who are being harmed by this anachronistic law.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with Akina, please contact Mark Coleman at 808-386-9047 or info@grassrootinstitute.org.
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[1] Letter to President Joe Biden from Keli’i Akina of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii,Sept. 27. 2022, copied to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Hawaii’s congressional delegates: U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele.

[2] Joseph Wilkinson, 21 Deaths in Puerto Rico Associated with Hurricane Fiona,” New York Daily News, Sept. 24, 2022; Jaclyn Diaz, “5 numbers that show Hurricane Fiona’s devastating impact on Puerto Rico,” NPR, Sept. 23, 2022.

[3] “46 U.S. Code § 501 — Waiver of navigation and vessel-inspection laws,” Legal Information Institute, accessed Sept. 27, 2022.

[4] Letter from U.S. Rep Nydia Velásquez, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al., Sept. 22, 2022.

[5] “In the Aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, New York City Council Calls for Jones Act Waiver in Puerto Rico,” New York City Council, Sept. 26, 2022.

[6] “Kill the Jones Act,” The Boston Globe, Sept. 24, 2022.

[7] “Puerto Rico’s membership in the U.S. should come with free shipping,” The Washington Post, Sept. 26, 2022.

[8] “The Jones Act Strands Hurricane Aid in Puerto Rico,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 27, 2022.

[9]  “Save Puerto Rico and repeal the Jones Act now,” Washington Examiner, Sept. 27, 2022.

[10] Letter from Govs. Charles Baker, Ned Lamont, Janet Mills, Christopher Sununu, Daniel McKee and Philip Scott, July 27, 2022.

[11] Colin Grabow, “New England Governors Seek Jones Act Relief as Spike in Winter Heating Bills Looms,” Cato Institute, Aug. 26, 2022.

[12] “Text of Grassroot Institute request to President Biden for Jones Act waiver for fuel imports,” Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, March 3, 2022.

[13] “Case Asks President To Waive Jones Act To Facilitate Available and Affordable Shipping Of US Oil From US Ports To Hawaii To Replace Banned Russian Oil Imports,” Press release from U.S. Rep. Ed Case, March 8, 2022.

[14] Michael Tsai, “Maui County Council asks for Jones Act waiver,” Spectrum News Hawaii, April 1, 2022.

[15] “How the Jones Act affects Puerto Rico; ‘the uncanny parallels’ with Hawaii,” Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, Aug. 31, 2022.

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