A ship laden with 300,000 barrels of diesel fuel spent six hours off the cost of Puerto Rico waiting for permission to deliver the much-needed fuel to Puerto Rico. The ship sailed under a flag from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and was traveling from Texas City to Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. This delivery fell afoul of the Jones Act, a 20th century cabotage law.
The Jones Act requires shipments between U.S. ports to be carried by American ships. The ships must be built in the United States, must fly under the U.S. flag, and must have U.S. crews. The ship with the fuel flew under the flag of the Marshall Islands (a sovereign nation in free association with the U.S.), so it was not legally allowed to make the delivery.
The ship, a chemical tanker called the GH Parks, has sailed under several different names and under several different nations’ flags, including a Chinese flag in 2019.
Jones Act waiver
According to British Petroleum, a Jones Act-compliant ship was already on its way to Puerto Rico with a shipment of fuel. The GH Parks was near to the Island already, on its way to a foreign nation, so BP requested the Jones Act waiver on September 20. The federal government was not immediately willing to provide this waiver.
“American maritime has been meeting and exceeding the needs of Puerto Rican residents in the wake of Hurricane Fiona and there continues to be absolutely no justification for a waiver of the Jones Act, as the U.S. Coast Guard, FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Department of Energy all have made clear that the supply of fuel to the Island is not an issue,” said Ku’uhaku Park, President of the American Maritime Partnership.
Jenniffer González Colón (R-PR) also said, “At each and every meeting, I have been assured by federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, FEMA, and the Corps of Engineers that there is an adequate supply of fuel on the Island that is available to consumers and that subsequent delivery is planned of more fuel in the short, medium and long term.”
However, there was a national outcry when it appeared that emergency supplies were stuck offshore near Puerto Rico, and the Department of Homeland Security agreed to the waiver.
“In response to urgent and immediate needs of the Puerto Rican people in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, I have approved a temporary and targeted Jones Act waiver to ensure that the people of Puerto Rico have sufficient diesel to run generators needed for electricity and the functioning critical facilities as they recover from Hurricane Fiona,” said DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Does the Jones Act apply to Freely Associated States?
The Jones Act is not specific to Puerto Rico and it is not related to Puerto Rico’s territory status. A ship carrying goods from one U.S. port to another must follow the Jones Act, whether the ports in question are in Puerto Rico, Florida, Hawaii, or Connecticut.
Ships must be U.S. ships in all ways, including the flag they fly and the crew they carry.
The Marshall Islands is a sovereign nation with a Compact of Free Association with the United States. The nation is often referred to as a Freely Associated State. Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia are the other two of the three U.S-affiliated Freely Associated States.
Some leaders in Puerto Rico have historically presented the idea of free association as a flexible relationship with murky boundaries. Yet, as the current facts show, the Marshall Islands is in fact an independent nation, not part of the United States. Puerto Rico, were it to become an associated republic with a relationship of free association with the United States, would be an independent, sovereign nation as well. It would not be part of the United States political family, as it now is.