Politics & Policy

One Ridiculous Regulation Is Killing American Maritime Commerce — and American Mariners

What happens when you attack a powerful industry’s golden goose? They get mad. Suffice it to say our article on the Jones Act and the sinking of the El Faro elicited quite a lot of pushback. Most of the criticism came from shills for various maritime lobbies, but there were, disappointingly, a few negative responses from ostensibly conservative sources, as well. We’re here to clear the air of any confusion and restate our case.

First and foremost, the Jones Act has many components. We’re really only calling for the repeal of one: The requirement that all major self-propelled, ocean-going vessels moving goods or passengers between American ports be American-built.

There are only two functioning U.S. shipyards that can construct major self-propelled, ocean-going vessels, Aker and Nassco. Both facilities receive copious federal support and are the only two credit-worthy yards that any company would trust to build such a ship. Despite — or perhaps because of — these advantages, the costs of building a vessel at Aker and Nassco remain outrageous. When the virtual impossibility of building a major vessel in America meets the requirement that all such vessels be American-made, the result is an aging fleet. And an aging fleet means more tragic maritime accidents like the El Faro disaster.

Many of our critics have pointed out that modern vessels such as the MOL Comfort also sink. Well . . . yes, of course modern ships still sink; we never asserted otherwise. But it’s undeniable that older ships put their crews at far greater risk than modern ones. The New York Times quoted a report from Southampton Solent University in Britain that sums this up nicely: “The evidence confirms that the majority of accidents can be linked with older vessels, a predominance of general cargo carrier accidents, and a suite of worst-performing flags.” Given that the average age of a U.S.-made vessel is 31 years — nearly three times the average age of a foreign vessel — this is extremely concerning.

Proponents of Tote Maritime, the company that sent 33 sailors into a tropical storm with open-top, oar-powered lifeboats on a 40-year-old ship, point out that the company just took delivery of two modern ships, which are powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). They claim that this is an innovation on the part of U.S. yards, slyly neglecting to mention that most major shipyards in Korea, China, and Japan can also build LNG-powered engines. Why don’t they? Because of the much higher LNG prices and lack of LNG-bunkering facilities abroad, which ensure that this type of investment only makes sense for the prohibitively expensive U.S. market.

Don’t be misled. It is possible to support the world-class mariners of the U.S. Merchant Marine, which plays a vital role in our infrastructure and national security, while opposing the Jones Act blue-water–build requirement, which endangers the lives of American seamen and inhibits their economic potential. The best way to prevent more tragedies like the sinking of the El Faro is to modernize America’s commercial fleet, and the best way to do that is to let foreign-built ships in.

— Eftychis John Gregos-Mourginakis and Joshua Jacobs are co-founders and members of the board of the Conservative Future Project, an organization working to unleash America’s 21st-century frontier economy.

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