The Maritime War Within

The federal government appears to be at war with itself over maritime policy. Last week, the Department of Energy announced that it waived the Jones Act requirement for transporting oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to U.S. destinations. Jones Act supporters rose up, and DOE reversed course in less than a day.

This is the same department that asserted that companies that bought wind turbines overseas with DOE loan guarantees didn’t have to abide by U.S. cargo preference laws. The Department of Transportation slapped down that notion last month.

The Export-Import Bank of the United States isn’t thrilled with cargo preference, either. The bank says that U.S. flag ships are never there when they’re needed. Ex-Im is up for reauthorization, and it may propose a cargo preference exemption. U.S. fleet supporters say the idea is pretty much dead on arrival.

None of this adds up to a conspiracy of bureaucrats to do in the U.S. flag fleet. It does show that the country lacks a strong maritime policy, and several administrations that have taken no interest in the subject.

The Maritime Administration doesn’t appear to be doing much for the cause. H. Clayton Cook, former Marad general counsel, now an attorney specializing in vessel finance, recently blasted the agency for failing to meet Congress’ deadline for a report on the marine highways program. Congress wanted it in December 2008. Marad delivered it in April.

Now Marad is supposed to be publishing another congressionally-mandated study of what’s needed to make the U.S. merchant marine commercially viable in the global economy. Marad says the report will be finished sometime this summer.

Administrator David Matsuda said the same thing to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee two weeks ago. Not good enough for Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., one of the U.S. fleet’s strongest supporters. Three times he asked Matsuda to give him a specific date, but Matsuda dodged the question.

It came down almost to an ultimatum. When, Cummings asked, can the committee expect the report? “September,” Matsuda said.

--Contact R.G. Edmonson at

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