AMO Supports the Jones Act Offshore Fleet

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Published Apr 28, 2017 2:50 AM by Paul Doell

To: Mr. Glen Vereb
Director, Border Security and Trade Compliance Division
Office of Trade, Regulations and Rulings
U.S. Customs and Border Protection 

RE: Notice of Proposed Modification and Revocation of Ruling Letters Related to Customs Application of the Jones Act to the Transportation of Certain Merchandise and Equipment Between Coastwise Points 

Dear Director Vereb,

On behalf of the U.S. merchant marine officers I am privileged to represent, I ask respectfully that the record reflect our union's strong support of the above-captioned notice.

This proposed modification would align Customs and Border Protection interpretation of the Jones Act with the law's requirements, all of which have served our nation so well since the Jones Act was enacted as Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. I urge immediate application of this modification to hasten new private investment in maritime industries that promote U.S. national, economic and homeland security interests. 

American Maritime Officers is the largest union of seagoing professionals licensed and vetted by the U.S. Coast Guard. The marine engineers and deck officers comprising the AMO membership serve aboard privately owned and operated U.S.-flag merchant vessels plying the U.S. coastlines and international trade routes, the Great Lakes and inland waterways. AMO members also serve aboard U.S. Navy Military Seali?t Command and Maritime Administration military support ships under government contracts awarded to commercial U.S.-flag shipping companies through competitive bidding. 

The diverse AMO fleet roster includes oil and petroleum product tankers, containerships, roll-on/roll-off ships, heavy-lift ships, combination container and RO/RO ships, cable ships, Great Lakes dry bulk cargo carriers, tugboats and tug-barges. Much of our work is in domestic service governed by the Jones Act.

The Jones Act already accounts for more than 500,000 private sector jobs nationwide and generates billions in federal, state and local tax revenues. The proposed modification and revocation of the ruling letters at issue would have a powerful multiplier effect on both economic benefit fronts. 

More importantly in this increasingly unstable world, the Jones Act sustains essential defense resources at no cost to U.S. taxpayers. 

Many Jones Act ships operating between U.S. coastal points can carry military cargoes to overseas war zones if the need arises, and an estimated 80 percent of the highly skilled, reliable and loyal civilian American merchant mariners who crew government-owned sealift ships during distant emergencies began their careers in Jones Act markets. Many officers and crewmembers aboard the 60 commercial U.S.-flag merchant ships providing defense services under the Maritime Security Program have at various times worked on Vessels operating in domestic trades under the Jones Act. 

The Jones Act also ensures continued U.S. defense shipbuilding capability – large shipyards that can meet the Navy's vessel construction, maintenance and repair requirements now thrive on the three deep-sea coasts. 

In addition, the Jones Act enhances homeland security by ensuring that U.S. citizens staff all merchant vessels serving domestic deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland markets. The law raises no risk of illegal immigration or "ship jumping" in the U.S. by foreign nationals who may be aligned with or supportive of international terrorist networks. 

The Jones Act sets a clear mandate: commercial waterborne cargoes moving between and among U.S. ports must be carried in vessels owned, documented, built and crewed in the United States. The law explicitly bars foreign-flag merchant vessels from providing "any part of the transportation of merchandise by water, or by land and water, between points in the United States to which the coastwise laws apply.” 

Moreover, the Jones Act does not allow Customs and Border Protection to modify the law's provisions through executive action – only Congress can approve exceptions to and waivers of specific Jones Act requirements. Despite Jones Act clarity and consistently wise Congressional refusal to amend or repeal this domestic shipping law, the letter rulings addressed by the 2017 Notice have for years allowed foreign vessels to carry merchandise between U.S. points – specifically, in the Gulf of Mexico's offshore energy markets. Thus, these letter rulings should be revoked as proposed in the 2017 Notice. 

The letter rulings in focus were issued by CBP without due consideration of the economic harm caused to all domestic maritime interests – which is why the proposed modification and revocation should be approved immediately to ease the consequences of lost employment and opportunity at Sea and ashore and to spur new economic growth.

CBP has considered these issues for at least eight years – sufficient time to consider the legal merit of the proposed revocations carefully and completely. 

The process provided for in the 2017 notice allows thoughtful and informed deliberation, as Congress intended with its standards for CBP revocation of a letter ruling. CBP is required to provide notice of its intent to revoke specific letter rulings and to allow public comment for at least 30 days. CBP must publish its final decision within 30 days of the close of the public comment period, and the final ruling becomes effective 60 days after its official distribution. As a federal appeals court has ruled, this is fair, reasonable and accommodating to all interests on either side of the issue. 

The record here is clear – the Jones Act works well as intended. The proposed modification would ensure that the law is followed as written. This, in turn, would reaffirm the Jones Act's time-tested value and strengthen its standing as an important expression of U.S. sovereignty. 

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this urgent issue. We in American Maritime Officers are available to answer any questions you may have. 

Paul Doell is the National President of the American Maritime Officers (AMO). 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.