As the offshore wind industry is growing in the United States, there is an influx of vessels that are considering operating on the U.S. outer continental shelf (“OCS”), both foreign- and U.S.-flag Jones Act-qualified vessels. An important consideration in planning for operations on the U.S. OCS is how the vessel must be crewed for such operations, which is often overlooked or misunderstood.
The U.S. Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”) generally requires all vessels that are engaged in “OCS activities” to crew the vessels with U.S. citizens. The U.S. Coast Guard defines “OCS Activity” as “any offshore activity associated with exploration for, or development or production of, the minerals of the Outer Continental Shelf.” There is an exception to this rule that allows foreign-flag vessels that are over 50-percent foreign owned or controlled by foreign citizens to engage in U.S. OCS activities using foreign-citizen crewmembers. To use this exception, a formal application to the U.S. Coast Guard is required, which if validated by the U.S. Coast Guard, results in the issuance of a letter of non-applicability stating that the U.S. manning requirements do not apply to the vessel.
With respect to offshore wind farm work, the U.S. Coast Guard has taken the position that such work is not an OCS activity subject to this OCSLA requirement and the U.S. crew requirement does not apply. However, OCSLA was amended on January 1, 2021, to expressly clarify that U.S. laws, including the Jones Act, apply to offshore wind farm work in the same manner as they do to oil and gas work. The U.S. Coast Guard is now reviewing this change and, ultimately, we expect the Coast Guard to change its position on OCS activities and begin applying the U.S. citizen crew requirements to vessels engaged in offshore wind farm work.
Stakeholders in offshore wind construction projects, including vessel owners and operators, project developers, and equipment manufacturers, should ensure that their plans for offshore wind development take into consideration the implications of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (“CBP”) most recent Jones Act ruling. While a previous ruling issued by CBP in January 2021 changed course by ruling that “pristine sites” were subject to the Coastwise Merchandise Statute (commonly referred to as the Jones Act), CBP has modified this ruling generally in line with past precedent. Nonetheless, CBP’s modification creates some changes for Jones Act compliance in the offshore wind sector.
On January 27, 2021, CBP ignited controversy in its first Jones Act ruling on offshore wind since the passage of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”). The NDAA, through an amendment to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”), clarified that the Jones Act applied to renewable energy projects on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”), and stakeholders expected that the same cabotage rules which have applied to mineral energy development projects would equally apply to offshore wind. Nonetheless, in HQ H309186, CBP deviated from decades of precedent by ruling that the lading of “scour protection” materials by a non-coastwise qualified vessel at a U.S. coastwise point (i.e., a port or place in the United States), and unlading of these materials at a pristine site on the OCS, would violate the Jones Act. Reversing course after comments from industry stakeholders, CBP issued a modification, which held that the “Jones Act does not apply to activity occurring at the pristine seabed on the OCS, which has been CBP’s longstanding position on the issue.” HQ H317289 (March 25, 2021). While CBP’s reversal appears to be consistent with “longstanding” precedent on pristine sites, the modification itself raises questions about the applicability of the Jones Act in certain contexts as discussed further below.
Decades after extending federal law (including the Jones Act) to the OCS for mineral-related energy development projects, Congress enacted the 2021 NDAA, which included a provision confirming that the Jones Act applies to all offshore energy development on the Outer Continental Shelf, including wind energy. While most offshore wind projects were planned with Jones Act compliance in mind, this has generally been a welcome development for all stakeholders, with the hope that it would bring needed clarity and certainty to renewable energy development projects offshore.
However, CBP’s first shot out of the gate in January missed the mark, although the agency should be lauded for issuing a correction in short order last month. In the initial ruling, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock (“Great Lakes”) proposed to transport and unlade “scour protection” materials (i.e., rocks) to protect wind turbine generator (“WTG”) foundations in conjunction with the construction of the Vineyard Wind Project located on the OCS off the southeast shore of Martha’s Vineyard. Great Lakes proposed unlading the materials at the WTG sites on the OCS in layers and at different phases of the WTG installation process using both coastwise and non-coastwise vessels under various scenarios.
Stakeholders in offshore wind, particularly vessel operators and project managers, should ignore a recent U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) ruling on offshore wind. While there had been buzz about this ruling, CBP has revoked the ruling based on a misunderstanding of the facts in question in the ruling request. As such, there are no recent rulings related to offshore wind, and stakeholders should continue to examine their Jones Act compliance plans with experienced counsel and seek rulings as needed.
A recent CBP ruling, HQ H309672 (July 15, 2020) (the “Ruling”), drew the attention of many in the industry since the last ruling relating to offshore wind was issued approximately nine years ago for the Deepwater Wind project in 2011. The Ruling related to wind farm activities occurring in the territorial sea off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. CBP has since published a revocation notice, HQ H312773 (August 3, 2020) (the “Revocation”), which was published on the CBP website on August 12, 2020, retracting the Ruling. CBP’s stated reason for the revocation was the lack of clarity on whether the “activities would occur in the territorial sea or on the Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”)” and that it would be best to revoke the Ruling “until the coordinates of the installation can be established.”
In 2011, CBP issued Blank Rome a ruling on behalf of the Deepwater Wind project that the use of a crane that is aboard a non-coastwise-qualified vessel to load and unload wind turbines in the territorial seas is not prohibited by the Jones Act. No rulings have been issued on an offshore wind project since the 2011 ruling. Since that time, we understand CBP has declined to rule on requests to issue a ruling on the applicability of the Jones Act to offshore wind activities occurring on the OCS and whether a wind farm foundation or other devices attached to the seabed for wind farm purposes would constitute a coastwise point under the Jones Act.
In December 2018, the Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act (the “LoBiondo Act”) was enacted to, among other things, improve and support the operation and administration of the Coast Guard and update maritime and environmental policy. Section 713 of the LoBiondo Act directs the Comptroller General of the United States to “conduct a study that examines the immediate aftermath of a major ocean carrier bankruptcy and its impact through the supply chain.” In accordance with that mandate, in January 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) published a report on the role of the Federal Maritime Commission (the “FMC”) and Department of Commerce (“Commerce”) in an ocean carrier’s bankruptcy case.
The study was prompted by supply chain disruption at sea and at numerous ports caused by the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping Co., Ltd. in August 2016. At the time, Hanjin was one of the world’s largest integrated logistics and container shipping companies transporting cargo to and from ports throughout the world. The GAO concluded that the FMC and Commerce played an important monitoring function in the industry, but did not recommend any changes to either agency’s role in an ocean carrier bankruptcy. This is because the GAO found that industry participants have already taken steps to mitigate the effects of another ocean carrier bankruptcy and current law does not authorize these agencies to have a more active role.
The Ocean Carrier Industry
The maritime transport industry is the backbone of globalized trade and the manufacturing supply chain. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Review of Maritime Transport 2019, more than four-fifths of world merchandise trade by volume is carried by sea. Annually, more than one trillion dollars in U.S. exports and imports are moved by ocean vessels. Prior to the current pandemic, the industry was already coping with low-freight rates, reduced earnings, and oversupply as a result of increased global tariffs, volatility in demand, and new environmental regulations. These market conditions have led to the continued consolidation of ocean carriers. “In February 2019, the [top] 10 deep-sea container-shipping lines represented 90 per cent of deployed capacity and dominated the major East-West trade routes through three alliances.” This consolidation in the industry increases the risk of disruption that the financial instability of any one shipping company can have on the global supply chain.
Scope of the GAO Study
To address the objectives mandated in the LoBiondo Act, the GAO reviewed documents filed in Hanjin’s bankruptcy case and documents provided by the FMC and Commerce. Additionally, the GAO interviewed 15 industry stakeholders representing various roles in the supply chain including representatives from four ports, two ocean carriers, one association representing carriers, one association representing freight forwarders and customs brokers, five associations or companies representing transportation and equipment providers, one association representing retailers, one association representing agricultural cargo owners, and officials with the FMC and Commerce. Continue Reading
Vessels are the backbone of any offshore construction project, and the Jones Act, which celebrated its centennial this month, regulates their operations in U.S. waters on the Outer Continental Shelf. Originally promulgated as a transportation statute, the Jones Act has governed vessels engaging in offshore construction for nearly four decades. While offshore oil and gas construction operations have been conducted in compliance with the Jones Act for decades, with the burgeoning offshore wind sector there is renewed interest on how the Jones Act will be applied to such projects. Indeed, planning for Jones Act compliance is a major component of successful wind farm installation operations, as has been the case for years with oil and gas-related work. Interestingly, despite the fact that the Jones Act is now a century old, there have been recent significant regulatory and legal developments in its interpretation.
Specifically, after years of debate within the offshore industry, on December 19, 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) issued its decision in its Customs Bulletin, “Modification and Revocation of Ruling Letters Relating to CBP’s Application of the Jones Act to the Transportation of Certain Merchandise and Equipment Between Coastwise Points” (the “Decision”). The Decision became effective on February 17, 2020. Offshore developers, vessel operators, and other stakeholders must now face the question: How does the Decision affect offshore activities?
Further, the Decision currently faces challenges both in Congress and the courts. Some members of Congress who are not pleased with CBP’s actions have been focused on legislating in this area and modifying the Jones Act to include restrictions on lifting operations undertaken by installation vessels. This would effectively overrule parts of the Decision. Stakeholders in the offshore wind, ocean renewable energy, and offshore oil and gas sectors should pay attention to these developments as they will intimately impact offshore construction activities.
Background on the CPB Decision
In both 2009 and 2017, CBP published notices to revoke or modify various rulings, which potentially could have overturned decades of precedent with regard to a sweeping range of offshore operations that have never been subject to the Jones Act. To be frank, CBP did not fully understand how the offshore industry operated offshore, and the proposals were potentially overbroad without CBP understanding the economic impacts on the various types of offshore operations these proposals would have adversely affected. As a result of strong industry backlash on both occasions, the proposals were withdrawn for reconsideration. Finally, following the 2017 withdrawal, CBP undertook an intensive exchange of information with all facets of industry to fully understand how industry actually operates offshore and to fine-tune and focus its 2019 proposal on vessel equipment issues and lifting operations, which resulted in a decision that took into account comments and input from all stakeholders.
As far as substance, the Decision eliminates previous erroneous decisions that permitted non-coastwise-qualified vessels to transport items that should have been considered merchandise under the Jones Act. The Decision also clarifies that lifting operations may be conducted by non-Jones Act vessels. Specifically, as discussed in more detail below, the Decision 1) broadens the definition of merchandise to make it clear that non-Jones Act vessels can no longer carry out certain offshore activities that they have performed for years under a misguided and overly broad “mission of the vessel” theory, and 2) establishes a new interpretation of “Lifting Operations” to specify the movements that a non-Jones Act vessel can perform when conducting installation or decommissioning operations, which will not be considered “transportation” within the meaning of the Jones Act.
Should the Decision be overturned either in court or through legislation, it will have a significant impact on the market for offshore construction, whether for renewable energy or fossil fuel production. Currently, there are few or no Jones Act-qualified vessels that can perform the necessary lifting operations needed to undertake the multitude of varying construction projects offshore, depending on the crane capacity and vessel and stability characteristics required for a particular lifting operation. Continue Reading
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) issued a significant decision on December 19, 2019, which will substantially alter how certain operations conducted by coastwise and non-coastwise vessels can be conducted offshore in the oil and gas and wind industries. The changes become effective on February 17, 2020. Stakeholders should examine this decision to determine how it will impact their operations.
On December 19, 2019, CBP issued its decision in the Customs Bulletin entitled “Modification and Revocation of Ruling Letters Relating to CBP’s Application of the Jones Act to the Transportation of Certain Merchandise and Equipment Between Coastwise Points” (the “Notice”). Available here. The Notice clarifies CBP’s position on whether certain items constitute “vessel equipment,” which is not “merchandise” and may be transported by non-coastwise qualified vessels. The Notice also contains a section clarifying that “lifting operations” are not “transportation” within the meaning of the Jones Act. In short, the Notice eliminates previous erroneous decisions that allowed non-coastwise qualified vessels to transport items that should have been considered merchandise and not “vessel equipment” under the Jones Act. The Notice also returns CBP to the position that it held for decades that lifting operations may be conducted by non-coastwise qualified vessels.
In January 2017, CBP proposed a notice that would have overturned decades of precedent with regard to offshore operations potentially subject to the Jones Act. This notice, which was published in the CBP Customs Bulletin, proposed the modification of approximately 25 CBP rulings that delineated the difference between “equipment of the vessel,” the transportation of which does not implicate the Jones Act, and “merchandise,” which may only be transported by qualified vessels under the Jones Act. CBP withdrew this notice on May 10, 2017. Since then, regulatory officials engaged stakeholders in dialogue to resolve the issues raised in the notice.
The Notice also addressed issues related to lifting operations. Since at least 1983, CBP has held that a stationary, foreign-flag crane vessel may load and unload cargo as well as construct or dismantle a marine structure in compliance with the Jones Act. In 2012-2013, CBP issued what have become known as the “Koff Rulings” (HQ H225102 (September 24, 2012); HQ H23542 (November 15, 2012); and HQ H242466 (July 3, 2013)), which held that any movement of a vessel, even a short distance, while a topside is suspended from its crane and off its central axis for safety reasons is a violation of the Jones Act because in the Koff Rulings, this movement of the vessel is interpreted by CBP as providing part of the transportation of the topside between two points in the United States.
CBP issued its proposed Notice on October 23, 2019. There were 37 commenters to the Notice. CBP responded to the comments it received and clarified some points, but there were no substantive changes between CBP’s proposal and the Notice itself.
Historically, CBP used a “Mission of the Vessel” concept to justify certain installation, repair, and maintenance work subsea. This concept was applied over broadly, which allowed non-coastwise qualified vessel to perform some of these activities that should have been reserved to Jones Act vessels. The Mission of the Vessel concept was revoked by the Notice and replaced with a new “Vessel Equipment” interpretation. Under this interpretation, the scope of vessel equipment includes items, which are “necessary and appropriate for the navigation, operation, or maintenance of a vessel and for the comfort and safety of the persons on board.”
The U.S. House of Representatives has introduced legislation that could potentially greatly alter the landscape for oil, gas, and wind installation and decommissioning activities on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”). Stakeholders should examine the legislation for impacts to their operations.
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure marked up and approved H.R. 3409, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2019 (“2019 CGAA”) on June 26, 2019. This legislation, if enacted, could have significant impacts on how oil, gas, and wind vessel activities are conducted on the OCS. Of particular note, the legislation could have an outsized effect on offshore wind in the United States, which is at a nascent stage and requires installation activities of the type contemplated in the 2019 CGAA.
In January 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) proposed to overturn decades of precedent with regard to offshore operations potentially subject to the Jones Act in its “Proposed Modification and Revocation of Ruling Letters Relating to Customs Application of the Jones Act to the Transportation of Certain Merchandise and Equipment Between Coastwise Points” (the “Notice”). The Notice, which was published in the CBP Customs Bulletin, proposed the modification of approximately 25 CBP rulings that delineated the difference between “equipment of the vessel,” the transportation of which does not implicate the Jones Act, and “merchandise,” which may only be transported by qualified vessels under the Jones Act.
Action Item: The creation of the National Jones Act Division of Enforcement (“JADE”) signals that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has made Jones Act outreach and enforcement a national priority. U.S. and foreign stakeholders in the coastwise trade, including the offshore sector, should consult with counsel to discuss the implications of the establishment of JADE and activities that could implicate the Jones Act to help ensure compliance.Continue reading “CBP Announces the “Jade”—A New Enforcement Division for the Jones Act”
The U.S. Coast Guard, under new guidance from President Barack Obama, is moving forward to acquire one new polar icebreaker for the United States. But the United States, as a leading maritime power and Arctic nation, needs more icebreakers and has yet to determine how to fund these very expensive ships. This article describes the United States’ disappointing history with polar icebreakers and why they are badly needed. Continue reading “The U.S. Imperative for New Icebreakers”