Massachusetts politicians are ramping up the political rhetoric in advance of MARAD’s decision on the Excelerate energy deepwater port license application. Less than two weeks ago, a competing terminal, the Neptune LNG offshore delivery system became the first facility of its kind to get MARAD approval on the East Coast. In December, outgoing Governor Mitt Romney gave his approval to both projects before leaving office.
Last year’s very public Suez commitment to promote employment opportunities for U.S. mariners on both its existing fleet of LNG carriers and on the vessels to be used in the future for the Neptune project played heavily into the approval process. MARAD spokespersons are on record as saying that the employment agreement was a significant factor in the decision to give Suez the go-ahead. Now, with Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and newly sworn-in Bay State governor Deval Patrick ramping up the pressure on the federal government to ensure that LNG deliveries to the Bay State are handled by U.S. mariners, MARAD’s commitment to find berths for American mariners has taken on a new urgency.
Markey, who is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce and Homeland Security Committees, released a statement backing Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's request to MARAD that only U.S. crews be used on tankers transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) into Massachusetts' ports. In a February 5 letter addressed to MARAD’s Administrator Sean Connaughton, Patrick cited the need for heightened security and urged federal authorities to require U.S.-trained and certified crews on LNG tankers operating in Massachusetts waters.
The rhetoric is welcome news for U.S. seafarers in a climate of declining U.S. flag merchant fleet assets, but execution of the “U.S. mariner-only” concept will be problematic. Connaughton has actively pushed compliance with the Deepwater Port Act which requires the Department of Transportation to work with applicants for deep water licenses to find berths for Americans and has publicly linked the concept to the LNG offshore approval process. And while Neptune has vowed to actively seek out qualified U.S. mariners for their vessels, it is also true that qualified US mariners may be in short supply because the US merchant fleet today has no active LNG carriers, none under construction and there are no concrete plans to build any. The most experienced LNG merchant mariners in America probably last sailed on LNG carriers more than twenty years ago.
Watching the fray from the sidelines and mentioned prominently in Governor Patrick’s February 6th press release, are the cadets, graduates and administration of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Conveniently located nearby both proposed offshore facilities, Mass. Maritime is likely as well-placed any other maritime training program to take advantage of the re-emergence of LNG as an attractive energy source. With Governor Patrick and several other key Bay State legislators supporting the need for U.S. crews on the LNG tankers, the likelihood of seeing MMA graduates on board LNG carriers plying Massachusetts waters in the near future has increased exponentially. But the logistics of how that could come about are still uncertain, and all the posturing in the world by Bay State politicians won’t make it come about any faster.
Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org