Picking apart Rep. Kearney’s fishy argument

Jones Act could strangle offshore wind industry

YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED a fishy odor from a recent CommonWealth article. It was the smell of red herring, served in an opinion piece by state Rep. Patrick Kearney. On its face, his argument seems reasonable enough: protect American merchant marine jobs by continuing to exclude foreign vessels from serving offshore wind power platforms. Kearney wants federal regulators to strictly interpret part of a 100-year-old law commonly known as the Jones Act. While I disagree with his interpretation, I can’t criticize it as illegitimate. Policy arguments belong in the pages of CommonWealth. Red herring, however, belongs in the fish market.

Kearney’s first fishy argument was to imply that western European vessels supplying offshore wind platforms would harm national security. The fearsome foreigners who are investing in US offshore wind farms are Danish, Spanish, and British – all NATO allies. Their soldiers have shared risks with our own soldiers in the Middle East and the Balkans for decades, through many administrations. I suspect that any former defense secretary, Democrat or Republican, would bristle at the suggestion that our European allies endanger our national security.

The original Jones Act did not justify its cabotage restrictions on vague xenophobia. Congress argued specifically that a thriving merchant marine was necessary to transport US troops and supplies in time of war. But the small, specialized vessels used to service offshore wind platforms are not likely to be used to transport military equipment to distant war zones. As a young US soldier supporting military liaison, I facilitated the movement of US military aircraft and tanks through a Middle Eastern port. I was amazed at the size of the American merchant marine vessels in port — the largest ships I had ever seen in my young life. Such behemoths will not serve small offshore wind platforms or the two Massachusetts ports — New Bedford and Somerset — that are being prepared to support offshore wind. They’re too big. There is no logical link between the huge ships needed to transport war supplies to distant war fronts and the small, specialized vessels that serve nearby offshore wind platforms.

Kearney’s next red herring was dredged up in an argument about unsafe working conditions for crews on a Chinese ship. Indeed, the Chinese do not protect workers’ safety as stringently as we do.  However, the Chinese do not have specialized offshore wind support vessels. The Chinese are not relevant to a discussion of offshore wind power. The Chinese do have specialized ships that service offshore fossil-fuel platforms, but it is highly unlikely that this or any other administration would ever allow Chinese companies to control our strategic, offshore oil or gas platforms. Crew safety on Chinese ships is irrelevant to the debate on regulatory changes to the Jones Act.

Kearney’s final fishy argument is to link the Jones Act to the Beltway Battles, Trump vs Pelosi, and all that. He says that right-wing organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute criticize the Jones Act, but he doesn’t mention that not-so-right-wing organizations also see economic problems in the Jones Act. As you can see from a recent report by the highly respected, apolitical Congressional Research Service, analysis of the maritime economy doesn’t fit neatly into the political posturing that prevails in Washington. Let’s keep that posturing in Washington and out of our local discussions of local economic development and local jobs.

Ah, yes, jobs. Kearney did drag up one meaty argument in his otherwise fish-filled net — protecting the jobs of American merchant mariners. And he’s partially right. Excluding the small, specialized vessels of European investors from our coastal waters will prevent Europeans from serving the offshore wind industry with their existing technology and equipment.

Kearney implicitly supposes that American companies will rush in to serve offshore wind platforms, but there is reason to fear that they won’t. The Jones Act has forbidden foreign vessels from inter-coastal trade between American ports since 1920, but inter-coastal marine trade has dwindled, while most of our freight that is not carried by rail further clogs our already clogged highways.  American firms did not rush in to replace excluded foreign vessels.

Offshore wind turbines will need service immediately and European investors may not wait another hundred years for American firms to provide this service. If European investors are not allowed to use their own technology to get their new investments started, those investments may be delayed. I certainly hope that American firms will rise to the challenge and find competitive niches in this new market. I hope that new jobs for building, manning, and supplying specialized service vessels will grow in our coastal communities. But I don’t want to risk killing the new offshore wind industry by forcing it to use only American vessels that do not yet exist.

The new offshore wind industry may die if it is strangled by old regulations designed to protect old jobs. If it dies, many new marine technology jobs will die with it. The choice is clear. You can either protect a few old jobs by excluding European ships and crews from servicing their investments offshore, or you can encourage many new jobs in the offshore wind industry. You have to choose – you can’t have it both ways. Tell Congress that you support recent regulatory interpretations of the Jones Act that allow European investors to bring in their own specialized vessels to support offshore wind platforms.

Meet the Author
I won’t hide my own bias. I’m a resident of Somerset, a town on Mount Hope Bay, and I welcome the development of our industrial port at Brayton Point into a major service and manufacturing center for offshore wind. Somerset’s local ship builder, Gladding-Hearn, already builds and repairs small, specialized ships for ports around the western hemisphere. I expect this vibrant, local firm to find a competitive niche serving the offshore wind industry. Our local community college, Bristol, offers training and certification in offshore wind technology for young workers in a region where young workers have few opportunities. I hope that offshore wind and other industries in which we have a comparative advantage may begin to reverse the economic disadvantages we have had for generations.   I believe that our future lies in adapting to the future and not in protecting the past.

Lloyd Mendes is a resident of Somerset. He is Somerset’s commissioner to the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, but the opinions expressed here are his own.