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Offshore energy fight returns in Coast Guard authorization

Opponents say domestic vessel and crew requirements could slow or halt offshore wind energy development

An offshore wind development off Block Island, R.I., in 2016.
An offshore wind development off Block Island, R.I., in 2016. (Newsday via Getty Images)

Lawmakers are fighting to hold on to crew requirements included in the House’s Coast Guard authorization package that they say incentivize offshore energy developers to deploy more domestic vessels with American crews.

But they face an uphill battle against Capitol Hill’s offshore wind, oil and gas advocates — a bipartisan force who argue that keeping the provision in the Coast Guard legislation would halt a number of key energy development projects, many of which rely on foreign labor.

The requirements would specifically mandate offshore vessels operating on the Outer Continental Shelf be crewed by members of the same nationality as the flag of the vessel, limit the amount of visas offshore energy developers can issue to their workers and require that foreign workers undergo a security check.

The looming battle is familiar to provision authors Reps. John Garamendi, D-Calif., and Garret Graves, R-La., who were able to tack on the language to the chamber Coast Guard bill in the 117th Congress before senators nixed it. 

“President [Joe Biden] is absolutely correct — American taxpayer dollars ought to be used to support American business and American workers,” Garamendi said, referring to tax credits for offshore wind included in the reconciliation package. “What our language does is provide safeguards with the requirements that the personnel match the flag of the ship, which is going to significantly reduce unknown people from God knows where.”

Graves added that the language is meant to counter increasing gas prices and U.S. reliance on foreign energy sources as a result of the Biden administration’s “disjointed energy strategy.”

“We’ve also been told that new energy technologies – including offshore wind – will increase American jobs,” he said. “Our provision is a step toward ensuring a level playing field for American workers, vessels and operators to compete for those jobs.

The provision, or Section 336 in the current iteration of the bill, is Garamendi’s latest push to more strictly apply the 1920 Jones Act — a law that requires vessels transporting merchandise between two U.S. points, including structures installed into the seabed, to be built, crewed and mostly owned by Americans — to offshore energy developments.

However, there are no U.S.-flagged wind turbine installation vessels, and developers have been able to sidestep the Jones Act by using compliant barges. And Coast Guard regulations allowed foreign firms to hire mariners from nations other than the vessel owner’s home country, bringing labor from countries like India, Malaysia, China, the Philippines and Eastern Europe.

Nagging headache

The Jones Act is a perpetual headache for the offshore wind, oil and gas industries. The industry told Government Accountability Office investigators in 2020 that obtaining Jones Act-compliant wind-turbine installation vessels could cost up to $500 million. 

Now, they’re telling lawmakers like Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Massachusetts Democrat who represents a state with a large stake in the burgeoning offshore wind development industry, that Section 336 would endanger 83,000 American jobs since no existing wind turbine project would be compliant. 

“Offshore wind development is critical to meeting the Biden administration’s climate goals, becoming energy independent and creating good jobs,” he said during the bill’s markup. “Offshore wind construction requires highly specialized ships, including wind turbine installation vessels … the provisions in Section 336 thereby sacrifice the entire offshore wind workforce by focusing on a small segment of the job market.”

The bill passed through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Wednesday with the crewing and manning requirements still intact. Multiple attempts to kill the manning provision were made by Auchincloss with support from the panel’s ranking member Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., as well as Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa.

And if the past is any indication, Garamendi and Graves also need to convince a handful of senators to include their language in the Senate version of the Coast Guard bill, including Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Cruz said in the previous Congress that he is worried the language would put “new burdens on the energy and construction industry.” Others, like Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., argued it would be an “immediate threat to union jobs, investment, and clean energy in Massachusetts.”

But Garamendi says his confidence hasn’t wavered. He rebuts that without the language, foreign vessels don’t have to comply with safety standards and inspections and that it’s not true that “American mariners and personnel together with American ships don’t exist.”

“Our proposal does not in any way stop the development — in fact, it might actually enhance it,” he said. 

An Auchincloss spokesperson said he intends to work with House Democrats, the Senate and all maritime labor stakeholders “to protect U.S. jobs” and “ensure we achieve President Biden’s climate agenda,” but did not specify if Auchincloss would introduce any floor amendments to change Section 336.

Garamendi said he’s willing to negotiate and intends to include the language in the Senate version.

“To Cruz and any other person that’s opposed to this — so you want this multi-billion dollar program to be run, operated and profited by foreign companies?” he asked. “If that’s what you want … then oppose our legislation.” 

Peter Cohn contributed to this report.

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