Moves to ease the Jones Act for Puerto Rico draw mixed reaction

US Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby had to rip up his planned speech for the TradeWinds Jones Act Shipowners Forum.

That morning the press secretary for his boss — President Donald Trump — announced via Twitter that the US government would grant a waiver of a law that protects US domestic shipping markets from foreign-built ships, which was the very subject of the conference.

The decision last week was aimed at easing the pressure on Puerto Rico, whose trade with the US mainland is covered by the cabotage law requiring US-built, US-crewed and US-owned ships, after a devastating hurricane.

Buzby said the federal government "is not going to let the Jones Act or any other red tape impede the recovery efforts".

"It's a very emotional and very sad thing to see what's going on in Puerto Rico," he said.

Trump's decision drew mixed reviews from experts at the event in Washington DC.

Tom Allegretti, chairman of Jones Act stakeholders group American Maritime Partnership, expressed concern about the move and another waiver granted after Hurricane Irma battered Florida.

"We're troubled that both of these waivers have been made because both were unnecessary," he told TradeWinds.

He said the Irma waiver came while Jones Act ships were available to carry the cargo, and he believed the Puerto Rico situation would be the same.

But Squire Patton Boggs maritime lawyer John Reilly said the waiver served as a gesture by the Trump Administration to show that it was ready to take steps to help the US-controlled island.

"Whether the waiver was absolutely necessary in view of the US-flag tonnage that's available to respond to this situation is another question, but I'm happy that they made a gesture that certainly takes some of the pressure off," he told TradeWinds.

But, nearby, US Senator John McCain proposed a wider move, introducing legislation that would permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act.

"There is a strong possibility that it will be included in this year's National Defense Authorization Act," Denise Krepp, a former chief counsel for the US Maritime Administration, said of the bill.