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Keeping Up with the Jones Act
An old, protectionist chestnut is devastating the Gulf Coast.


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Deroy Murdock

As a self-proclaimed “citizen of the world,” Pres. Barack Obama should have welcomed rather than spurned international assistance to prevent BP’s underwater oil geyser from wrecking the Gulf Coast. But spurn he did. Obama’s failure to waive the Jones Act still maintains a sea wall that blocks potentially helpful foreign ships from this tear-inducing mess.

The 1920 Jones Act requires that vessels operating in American waters be built, owned, and manned by Americans. Some U.S. ship owners love this protectionist measure. So do maritime labor unions. When it comes to confronting unions, Obama rarely crosses that line.

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On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killed eleven oil-rig workers, and began gushing perhaps 60,000 barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico daily. Three days later, the Dutch offered to sail to the rescue on ships bedecked with oil-skimming booms. They also had a plan for erecting protective sand barricades.

“The embassy got a nice letter from the administration that said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” Dutch consul general Geert Visser told the Houston Chronicle’s Loren Steffy. “What’s wrong with accepting outside help?” Visser wondered. “If there’s a country that’s experienced with building dikes and managing water, it’s the Netherlands.”

Had those Dutch ships departed for the Gulf nearly two months ago, who knows how much oil they already would have absorbed and how many pelicans now would soar rather than soak in soapy water while wildlife experts clean their wings.
 
After initially refusing to name them, the State Department on May 5 declared that Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, Romania, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.N. had offered skimmer boats and other assets and experts to prevent the oil from destroying dolphins, crabs, oysters, and this disaster’s other defenseless victims.

Alas, they were turned away.

“While there is no need right now that the U.S. cannot meet,” stated a State Department statement, “the U.S. Coast Guard is assessing these offers of assistance to see if there will be something which we will need in the near future.” Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin translated this into plain English: “The current message to foreign governments is: Thanks but no thanks, we’ve got it covered.”

Had Obama instead waived the Jones Act via executive order — as did Pres. George W. Bush three days after Hurricane Katrina — that S.O.S. would have summoned a global armada of mercy. Who knows how many fishing, shrimping, and seafood-processing jobs this would have saved? Instead, thousands of Gulf Coast workers will endure a long march from dormant docks to bustling unemployment lines.



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