Navigating the Maritime Regulatory Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Maritime stakeholders should examine key guidance documents that have been published by U.S. government agencies in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Some of these guidance documents create new opportunities for stakeholders, while others may impact operations in U.S. waters. Regardless of effect, businesses involved in maritime commerce should be aware of these updates and plan accordingly. For example, companies who depend on non-U.S. citizen crews for operations in U.S. waters should be adequately prepared to equip crew with support letters during visa interviews and transit to the United States. And, vessel owners and operators with upcoming ballast water compliance dates should examine whether installation is feasible in this climate and seek extensions to their compliance date if it is not.

EW DEVELOPMENTS

The COVID-19 pandemic and the logistical and operational challenges it has caused have raised a host of questions within the maritime industry. A number of government agencies have sought to clarify expectations and even ease some requirements for the industry. Some of these changes, such as changes to the approach to extending the compliance date for installation of ballast water management systems, were directly intended to benefit the maritime industry. Other updates, such as the U.S. entry restrictions instituted via a Presidential Proclamation, did not target the maritime industry, but the impact was felt by companies that rely on the ability to have crewmembers travel through the United States. Below is a summary of some key guidance documents that are affecting the maritime industry during this pandemic.

ANALYSIS

Visas and Entry Restrictions

On March 14, 2020, a Presidential Proclamation entitled “Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting 2019 Novel Coronavirus” (available here) was issued, which included a travel ban for several countries. This Proclamation contained an exception for “any alien traveling as a nonimmigrant pursuant to a C‑1, D, or C-1/D nonimmigrant visa as a crewmember or any alien otherwise traveling to the United States as air or sea crew.” However, there have been significant problems for holders of B-1 visas for offshore work, which stems from differing interpretations from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) and the State Department. To date, industry is still experiencing difficulty with some embassies, which apparently are not recognizing that B-1 crew type visas are exempt from the Presidential Proclamation and should be considered mission critical, leading to reluctance on the part of some embassies around the world to issue these visas on an emergency basis. Support letters should be provided to crew seeking appointments and these crew type visas.

Please click here for the full client alert.

New Visa Guidance for Crews Working on Offshore Wind Projects

Jonathan K. Waldron and Stefanos N. Roulakis

The U.S. State Department published new guidance on visas issued to crewmembers who will work aboard vessels engaged in offshore wind farm operations. Vessel owners and project managers in the offshore wind sector should examine these changes and implement internal procedures to facilitate future wind farm projects.

New Development

The State Department has updated its policy guidance in the Foreign Affairs Manual of the United States (the “FAM”) to include a visa category for offshore wind projects. Blank Rome coordinated this effort along with the relevant agencies in the U.S. government. This new guidance solves a regulatory hurdle that had been causing logistical problems for the industry by clarifying the correct type of visa that will be issued by U.S. embassies to crewmembers working on vessels on offshore wind projects.

Background

The traditional method of obtaining visas for crewmembers engaged on energy projects located on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”) is to obtain a B-1 visa with an OCS annotation. Crewmembers are issued such a visa on the basis of a letter of non-applicability, which is issued by the U.S. Coast Guard (the “Coast Guard” or “USCG”) when it is determined that a vessel is owned or controlled more than 50 percent by foreign interests so that foreign citizens can crew a vessel engaged in OCS energy projects. The authority to regulate offshore wind farm energy projects was authorized pursuant to Section 388 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which amended the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. 43 U.S.C. § 1337(p)(1)(c). Nevertheless, the Coast Guard takes the position that it lacks statutory authority to regulate wind farms located on the OCS. As a result, the Coast Guard will not issue letters of non-applicability, which refusal rendered the State Department unable to issue B-1 (OCS) visas for offshore wind projects.

This has created confusion in industry as to the type of visa that an embassy will issue because crews could no longer obtain a B-1 (OCS) visa. A normal C-1/D crewman visa is not a viable option as it is only valid for 29 days. This type of visa would have provided an inadequate amount of time for the crew to conduct wind farm-related operations offshore. Such an issue could have proven to be a large impediment to the development of the nascent offshore wind sector in the United States.

Please click here for the full client alert.