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Trump vows not to act on Jones Act

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Lawmakers from U.S. Gulf Coast shipbuilding states convinced President Donald Trump to leave alone a decades-old maritime law preventing foreign vessels from moving cargo between American ports.

President Trump had been considering granting Puerto Rico a 10-year waiver from the Jones Act – which requires such cargo to be moved on U.S.-built, crewed, and flagged vessels – so that it could receive U.S.-origin shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as the country looks to upgrade its energy infrastructure.

But after reportedly leaning in favor of granting the long-term waiver to the 1920s-era law as late as last week, the president suddenly changed course.

“I organized this meeting today with President Trump and am very pleased with the result,” Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) tweeted yesterday. “The President’s decision to maintain the Jones Act is a victory for American jobs and National Security.”

Senator John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) said in a statement that after speaking with the president, “I am confident that he realizes how important the Jones Act is to Louisiana’s maritime industry and that no changes will be made. Our maritime industry is part of the lifeblood of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast economy. It would be foolish to push aside those jobs in favor of foreign-made and foreign-crewed ships.”

Following a December 2018 request from the governor of Puerto Rico asking the Trump Administration to waive the law, the issue became a hot topic among pro- and anti-Jones Act lobbying groups and on Capitol Hill. Advocates assert the law is necessary not only to protect American shipbuilding and seafaring jobs, but that it is vital to the country’s national security, as it helps support naval sealift capacity.

Those who oppose the law contend that the lack of foreign competition drives up transportation costs that ultimately hurt U.S. consumers. “If granted, the Jones Act waiver would have allowed Americans in New England and Puerto Rico to obtain bulk amounts of cheap LNG shipped in from other parts of the United States,” Colin Grabow a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote in blog post following the meeting. Grabow also argued that no U.S.-flag LNG carriers would have been affected by the waiver “as none exist, nor are any being built by the few remaining major U.S. shipyards.”

A Jones Act attorney told FreightWaves that despite President Trump’s penchant for abrupt course changes, he believes the issue is settled for now. Grabow isn’t so sure.

“There is perhaps solace to be found in the fact that he has demonstrated himself capable of unpredictable policy turns and zig-zags,” he said. “That he has not yet publicly committed to leaving the Jones Act untouched offers at least a sliver of hope that sanity will prevail and a waiver eventually issued.”

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.