Implications of Jones Act Changes to the Offshore Energy Industry

Jonathan K. Waldron and Stefanos N. Roulakis

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

Keeping up with the Jones Act

Dana S. Merkel

In the last several weeks, the Jones Act has drawn headlines over how it has shaped the U.S. and worldwide shipping industry. After almost 100 years as a part of federal law, there’s much misunderstanding as to what the law actually does.

The Jones Act requires that all merchandise loaded at one U.S. port and unloaded at another U.S. port be transported on vessels that are:

      • built in the United States;
      • documented under the laws of the United States;
      • owned by U.S. citizens; and
      • never sold to a foreign citizen.

The Jones Act only applies to domestic U.S. trade. It has no impact on vessels transporting cargo to or from another country. Similar laws also apply to domestic transportation of passengers, towing, dredging, salvage, and fishing. Continue reading “Keeping up with the Jones Act”

Potential Impacts of Offshore Legislation on Industry

Jonathan K. Waldron and Stefanos N. Roulakis

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.

New Development

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.

Background

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.

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After Flurry of Hurricane Waivers, Calls for Coastwise Changes Recede

Mainbrace | March 2018 (No.1)

Matthew J. Thomas, Jonathan K. Waldron, and Jeanne M. Grasso

 

 

 

In September 2017, in response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) issued a series of widely publicized waivers allowing carriage of cargo by non-coastwise qualified vessels in the Gulf region and to and from Puerto Rico. Public interest in the Jones Act spiked in mid-September, and some members of Congress introduced legislation for longer-term relief, particularly for Puerto Rico. Although controversial, the waivers for the most part seemed to achieve their intended goal, allowing for additional capacity to be available to move certain critical cargoes, particularly in the energy and other bulk sectors. As discussed in more detail below, the way the waivers were granted was rel­atively unique in the context of hurricanes, and some con­troversy arose with regard to the Puerto Rico waiver. The waivers, however, expired as planned with no significant fanfare or controversy, and broader political and public interest in the Jones Act sub­sided after a flurry of activity. Continue reading “After Flurry of Hurricane Waivers, Calls for Coastwise Changes Recede”

Recent Hurricanes Wreak Havoc, Produce Bipartisan Congressional Support and Trump Jones Act Waivers

Mainbrace | October 2017 (No.4)

C.J. Zane, Alan Rubin, and Joan M. Bondareff

As we are putting this issue of Mainbrace to bed, our thoughts are with the residents of Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida who are still recovering from the rarest of U.S. tragedies—three major hurricanes to directly hit U.S. land within a month. These disasters brought unique opportunities for neighbors to help one another and for bipartisanship in Congress, including a new deal with President Trump. Continue reading “Recent Hurricanes Wreak Havoc, Produce Bipartisan Congressional Support and Trump Jones Act Waivers”

Department Of Homeland Security Approves Jones Act Waiver for Deliveries to Puerto Rico

Jonathan K. Waldron, Jeanne M. Grasso, Matthew J. Thomas, and Sean T. Pribyl

 

 

 

Action Item: On September 28, 2017, Acting Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) Secretary Elaine Duke issued a 10-day Jones Act waiver, available here, in the interest of national defense and in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. The waiver commences immediately and applies to all products shipped from U.S. coastwise points to Puerto Rico. Covered merchandise must be laded on board a vessel within the 10-day period and delivered by October 18, 2017. Continue reading “Department Of Homeland Security Approves Jones Act Waiver for Deliveries to Puerto Rico”

Department Of Homeland Security Extends Jones Act Waiver

Jonathan K. Waldron, Jeanne M. Grasso, Matthew J. Thomas, and Sean T. Pribyl

 

 

 

Action Item: On September 12, 2017, Acting Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) Secretary Elaine Duke issued a new Jones Act waiver for refined products, effectively broadening and extending the previously issued seven-day Jones Act waiver by an additional seven days, to now run through September 22, 2017. This second Jones Act waiver also expands the number of states to which the waiver applies, and now includes movement of refined petroleum products, including gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, shipped from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas to Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico. The new waiver can be found here. Continue reading “Department Of Homeland Security Extends Jones Act Waiver”

Jones Act Waiver Granted In Response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Jeanne M. Grasso, Sean T. Pribyl, Matthew J. Thomas, and Jonathan K. Waldron

 

 

 

Action Item: On September 8, 2017, Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) Elaine Duke granted a seven-day waiver of the Jones Act in the interest of national defense. The waiver was issued to facilitate the movement of refined petroleum products to be shipped from New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Louisiana to South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Notably, this waiver applies to covered merchandise laded on board a vessel within the seven-day period of the waiver, and interested parties should be aware of the restrictions attendant to this waiver. The actual Jones Act waiver can be found here. Continue reading “Jones Act Waiver Granted In Response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma”

U.S. Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center Issues Rebuild Determination with Newly Imposed “Cumulative Steelweight” Criteria

Jonathan K. Waldron and Sean T. Pribyl

Action Item: A recently published Rebuild Determination Letter issued by the National Vessel Documentation Center (“NVDC”) adds a significant new criteria in making Jones Act rebuild determinations by calling into question any previous rebuild activity in which a vessel may have been engaged. To ensure future compliance with coastwise trade requirements, industry stakeholders must now consider the additional “cumulative steelweight” test articulated in the recent determination when assessing the extent to which foreign work has been performed on a vessel’s hull or superstructure. Continue reading “U.S. Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center Issues Rebuild Determination with Newly Imposed “Cumulative Steelweight” Criteria”

A Seaman’s Claim for Punitive Damages: The Gray Area between the Jones Act and General Maritime Law

Mainbrace | June 2017 (No. 3)

William R. Bennett III and Alexandra Clark

A recent state court decision highlights a division among state, district, and circuit courts on the availability of punitive damages for general maritime law claims. In a unanimous opinion, the Washington State Supreme Court in Tabingo v. American Triumph LLV ruled that punitive damages are recoverable by seaman with a claim for unseaworthiness where the employer acts recklessly.1 Plaintiff Allan Tabingo was working as a trainee deckhand on a fishing trawler when he was seriously injured by a hatch cover closing on his hand, resulting in the amputation of two fingers. Tabingo alleged the vessel was unseaworthy because the vessel operator was aware of the faulty control handle for at least two years, but failed to take any measure to repair the handle. He brought suit against the vessel owners and operators, claiming negligence under the Jones Act as well as a general maritime claim of unseaworthiness, for which he requested punitive damages. A unanimous Washington Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision to hold that punitive damages are an available remedy in a claim for unseaworthiness.

Continue reading “A Seaman’s Claim for Punitive Damages: The Gray Area between the Jones Act and General Maritime Law”