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Jones Act Waiver Allows RENDA to Deliver Emergency Fuel Supply to Nome, Alaska

Russian-flagged 371-foot tanker RENDA, escorted through over 300 miles of ice-covered seas by U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker HEALY, reached Nome, Alaska on Saturday, January 14, with 1.3 million gallons of unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel. Pumping the fuel into the town pipeline began safely during the few daylight hours on Monday. Normally, Nome residents would have received their full winter fuel supply by barge months ago, but a November storm made their final barge delivery impossible. Nome faced running out of fuel supplies before March or April if not for RENDA coming through with the first winter sea delivery ever to Nome. One solution was a very expensive fuel delivery by air, and that's exactly what might have been the only solution if it were not for a Jones Act waiver allowing the Russian vessel to operate in both Dutch Harbor to take on 400,000 of gasoline, and in Nome to deliver that gasoline as well as the diesel that RENDA had first loaded in South Korea.

The Jones Act dates from 1920, created in support of a strong, loyal, U.S. Merchant Marine, U.S. commerce, and national defense. According to the act, as a matter of national security, all commercial vessels operating within three miles of the U.S. coast must be built in the U.S., owned by a U.S. citizen, and have a crew consisting of at least three-quarters of U.S. citizens. Cabotage by foreign vessels is not allowed in U.S. waters between U.S. ports without a Jones Act waiver approved by the Secretary of Homeland Security. A waiver may be granted "in the interest of national defense" only if a foreign vessel can do some pressing work that a U.S. vessel cannot do. If a U.S. vessel can do the work, the waiver will not be granted. Waivers are typically very specific about what work is to be done, what supplies will be involved, and about waiver duration.

Recently, the Jones Act has been the center of some controversy in regard to waivers. In 2005, the Bush administration promptly granted waivers in order that fuel supplies be immediately delivered to ravaged parts of the Gulf after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But, when the BP oil spill occurred in the Gulf, the Obama administration insisted that U.S. ships could do all the work, and that the aid offered by foreign vessels was therefore not needed. Questions arose whether some or much of the terrible environmental aftermath could have been avoided had a waiver been quickly granted and foreign aid accepted. In the case of Nome, two points were favorable. First, the U.S. Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, and is directly involved in the fuel delivery, is overseeing the fuel transfer, along with state and local authorities, and will eventually escort RENDA over 360 miles back to the Bering Sea. Second, only RENDA could make the timely delivery, saving Nome residents much time and money, and perhaps saving lives during what is said to be the harshest winter in decades. 

According to Coast Guard reports, as of the afternoon of January 29, HEALY and RENDA have reached the open, ice-free waters of the Bering Sea.

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