White House pushes agencies to diesel for Puerto Rico

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White House officials are pushing federal agencies to quickly approve a legal waiver allowing Puerto Rico to receive a shipment of diesel fuel held off the island’s coast, according to a person familiar with the matter.

As Puerto Rico reels from Hurricane Fiona and the administration faces continued backlash over the issue, President Biden is following the case personally and supports granting the waiver, according to the person. , who spoke on condition of anonymity to reflect the private discussions.

Biden is facing a growing clamor from Congress as well as Puerto Rican leaders to provide an exemption that would allow the BP tanker carrying the fuel to access an island port. The ship cannot do so due to the Jones Act, a shipping law that requires goods shipped between points in the United States to be transported on US-flagged vessels, in order to support shipping and hand -American labor.

The ship, called GH Parks, flies the flag of the Marshall Islands and left Texas.

Administration officials say they have no legal authority to grant a one-year blanket waiver of the Jones Act, as requested by a group of House Democrats in a letter last week. Instead, White House aides are pushing the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation to expedite a review that would allow them to grant a one-time exemption for this particular vessel.

A BP spokesperson said a waiver request was submitted last week.

Biden faces growing pressure to grant waiver for diesel shipment

Images of the ship idling outside the island circulated on social media this week as Puerto Rico’s governor demanded action and worried about the delay’s impact on critical facilities damaged by the Hurricane Fiona, including sewage treatment plants, public hospitals and emergency centers. Many of these facilities, lacking power as a result of the storm, need fuel for generators that provide an alternate power source.

Island advocates have pointed out that the administration granted a Jones Act waiver after a ransomware attack on a Colonial pipeline led to outages in May, saying there was no reason why A similar derogation cannot be granted in this case.

“It is a political decision. … It’s such an emergency that they should be able to come up with a justification pretty quickly,” said Federico A. de Jesús, senior adviser to the Power 4 Puerto Rico coalition who served in the Obama administration. “Lawyers can justify it in many ways, as they did in these other two cases. It is not enough to blame the bureaucrats. »

To comply with federal law, the Secretary of DHS must ensure that Jones Act waivers meet specific legal criteria before granting the stay. First, DHS must determine that it is necessary to waive the Jones Act “in the interest of national defense,” although the law does not define the term. Second, the federal government must determine that there is no available domestic ship that could meet the same need as the foreign ship requesting the waiver.

When DHS receives a Jones Act waiver request, it must consult with the Departments of Energy and Defense to determine whether the “national defense” requirement can be met, an administration official said. The need to provide fuel to an island where thousands of Americans remain in the dark could be a priority for law enforcement, which could be considered in the interest of national defense, the official said.

DHS must also consult with the Department of Transportation’s Marine Administrator to ensure that no US-owned vessel can make the delivery. Typically, these waivers can only last 10 days or less.

“We have, under this administration, developed a process to try to speed up decision-making here,” said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal processes. “But it’s really an interagency process.”

Even if DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas decides to grant the waiver, the White House will still have to approve as a final step. The administration has said in the past that it will try to process such waivers within two days, but the complexity of a hurricane response could lengthen the review process, the official said.

While the sight of an idling tanker off the coast infuriates many in Puerto Rico and in Congress, the administration faces complex political cross-currents. The American Maritime Partnership – a coalition that represents operators of US-flagged ships and unions covered by the Jones Act – said on Monday that domestic vessels continued to supply fuel to the island, making a waiver unnecessary.

Group officials pointed to a radio interview with the executive director of the Port Authority of Puerto Rico on Tuesday in which he said there was enough diesel fuel on the island. Biden, who in the past has declared “unwavering support” for the Jones Act and pledged to be the most pro-union president in history, has been applauded by labor leaders for defending the century-old law and the American jobs it supports.

Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico on September 18, knocking out power across the United States and leaving more than 3 million people in the dark. The Energy Department released an update on Tuesday that said a third of Puerto Rico was still experiencing power outages, a number that represents 491,000 customers.

While Monday’s department update clarified that “currently, there are no reports of liquid fuel supply shortages on the island,” that line was not included in the update. released on Tuesday. “Since September 22, long queues have been reported at some gas stations due to high demand for gasoline and diesel,” the update read.

A DHS spokesperson on Monday did not provide a timeline for any decision on the waiver. “The Department of Homeland Security will continue to review individual Jones Act waiver requests on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with the Maritime Administration, Departments of Defense and Energy,” the carrier said. speech.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (DN.Y.), who signed the letter asking for the Jones Act waiver, said he was pushing for the administration to act in part because Congress won’t be able to while trying to avoid a government shutdown. .

“Actually, I don’t think it’s a real possibility this week,” Espaillat said in an interview. “With everything else on the table, it’s a big lift. This requires action from the administration. Right now it’s an emergency. … It’s a humanitarian issue at this point.

Other administration allies have also stepped up their criticism in recent days. Jason Furman, who served as one of the Obama administration’s top economists, said it “brought my blood to boil” that the White House would delay granting the waiver.

“At best, the Jones Act reduces resilience and increases prices,” Furman said. “At a time like this, it can be particularly harmful for the most vulnerable people who are suffering the consequences of the hurricane.”

Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.

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