Puerto Rico disaster a wakeup call to update Jones Act

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By Keli‘i Akina

Watching the controversy unfold over the delivery of fuel to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico has been especially poignant to those of us who live in Hawaii. 

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It’s hard not to look at the delay, political gamesmanship and dueling press statements and wonder how long it will be until Hawaii is in a similar situation.

As you may be aware, Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Fiona on Sept. 18. The storm killed 21 residents, caused serious flooding and left approximately 1 million people without electricity. The island is still recovering from the damage caused five years ago by Hurricane Maria, and it was immediately evident that Puerto Rico would need significant aid and support.

Disaster relief has been finding its way toward the beleaguered territory, but an old barrier we in Hawaii are all too familiar with is once again blocking the delivery of necessary goods: the 1920 Jones Act.

Keli‘i Akina

This blatantly protectionist federal maritime law requires that all goods shipped between American ports be on ships that are U.S. built and flagged and mostly owned and crewed by Americans. 

The effect of the law on Hawaii and Puerto Rico — both of which are heavily dependent on waterborne imports — is to make goods more expensive and inhibit economic growth. Worse, when there is an emergency, aid is restricted to the few ships that meet Jones Act requirements.

All of which explains why a ship carrying 300,000 barrels of essential diesel fuel from Texas sat off Puerto Rico’s coast earlier this week, legally unable to dock.

Why? Because the ship was not Jones Act compliant. 

For days, the ship sat there, a symbol of the Jones Act’s failure, while politicians, lobbyists, activists and maritime experts argued over whether the Biden administration should allow it to dock and unload its cargo.

Even before the issue of this one ship arose, prominent voices nationwide were calling for a general Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico.

As president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, I wrote President Joe Biden asking him to authorize a one-year Jones Act waiver for the territory. In Congress, both Republican and Democratic senators and representatives added their voices. The New York City Council called for a general exemption. And so did the editorial boards of The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among many others in the media. 

When the issue of the one fuel tanker took center stage, even more people stepped forward. 

So why the delay in granting the waiver? 

Because the Biden administration has repeatedly proclaimed its support for the Jones Act — and the corporations and unions that support the law are well-heeled and highly focused on protecting their turf. 

But public pressure kept intensifying. So on Wednesday, after days of dispute, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas granted a “temporary and targeted” waiver so the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel could deliver the fuel.

The action confirmed that the Jones Act hurts people who need aid. If the Jones Act worked, there would be enough ships and enough maritime workers to deliver help in a crisis. It doesn’t and there aren’t.

If the Jones Act worked, issuing waivers for areas with emergency needs — like Puerto Rico after a hurricane or the New England states trying to ensure sufficient liquid natural gas for the upcoming winter — wouldn’t become a nightmare of political wrangling and bureaucracy. 

As this latest incident demonstrates, ordinary people suffer while lobbyists claim that the domestic merchant fleet will crumble if a foreign-built ship is allowed to deliver American fuel to Americans who were hit by a natural disaster.

Reams of research produced by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and other organizations has shown that the Jones Act has failed to achieve its stated goals of boosting America’s maritime industry and protecting national security.

Yet, this law — crafted for long-ago era — continues to cause real harm to Puerto Rico. We in Hawaii should be watching carefully, because one day we might be the ones begging for a waiver that will help us power our hurricane-ravaged communities.

We should not wait for an emergency to start working to protect ourselves. Lawmakers at every level of government in Hawaii should be doing what they can now to update the Jones Act for the 21st century.
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Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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