U.S. Gets Oil-Spill Help from EU Nations with Special Equipment and Know-How     Print Email

Offers of help from European countries to the U.S. in dealing with the Gulf oil-spill have been welcomed and publicly acknowledged in Washington. The Obama administration has been markedly more receptive to these trans-Atlantic overtures of solidarity than the preceding Bush administration was during the Katrina hurricane disaster. Alongside U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico, two littoral nations from Europe -- Norway and the Netherlands – have already sent equipment to help with the crisis. Both have experience with offshore drilling emergencies, and they have already sent over eight skimming systems, which arrived in the U.S. in early May.

Many other European nations, including Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden and the UK, have also pledged help in kind -- containment booms and more skimming systems. Other EU nations, such as Sweden and Germany, have offered technical support. The EU has also sent aid through the European Commission’s Monitoring and Information Center and the European Maritime Safety Agency.

A Department of State document released yesterday said that “The United States will accept 22 offers of assistance from twelve countries and international bodies of assistance.”

Under similarly catastrophic conditions in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush government received many aid offers from its partners in Europe and elsewhere around the world, but decided to take a predominantly internal approach to solving the crisis, denying many proposals of assistance and cooperation until it was too late. FEMA’s denial of international help was part of a chorus of criticism about the failures in Washington’s response to Katrina.

As the disaster has continued into its eleventh week, some American critics of the Obama administration made public accusations that progress on clean-up has been hindered by White House refusal to announce a special waiver of the Jones act – a statute forbidding non-U.S. vessels from carrying cargo between American ports or carrying localized activity within three miles of the U.S. coastline. That statute, the critics said, prevented access for foreign skimmers and other specialized vessels that were needed to tackle the spill.

In fact, the Jones act has not prevented any help from working on the disaster, according to U.S. officials. A specialized independent news site, FactCheck, asked and answered this question in this way. “Questions: Did Obama turn down foreign offers of assistance in cleaning up the Gulf oil spill? And did he refuse to waive Jones Act restrictions on foreign-flag vessels? Answers: No, to both questions. So far, five [foreign] offers have been accepted and only one offer has been rejected. [France offered disperssants that are illegal in the U.S. on environmental grounds.] Fifteen foreign-flag vessels are working on the cleanup, and none required a waiver."

The Jones Act is a trade and commerce law that was enacted in 1920 as part of a larger Marine Merchant Act. It requires all trade delivered between U.S. ports to be carried in U.S. flagged vessels constructed in the United States and owned by American citizens. The law states its purpose is to develop a merchant marine for national defense and commerce.  In the response to Hurricane Katrina, the act was waived because massive infrastructure damage restricted the availability of key resources. According to people dealing with the Deepwater Horizon spill, it has yet to affect infrastructure or oil and gas availability; the damage is environmental, and foreign vessels are approved for delivering resources and conducting offshore skimming. So far, most of the oil-skimming is being done beyond the three-mile-limit.

The controversy has had the side effect of renewing debate in specialist circles in the U.S. about whether the time has come for Congress to reconsider this bit of legislation.


Meghan Kelly, European Affairs