Take a globe and turn it on its end, draw the shortest sea route from China’s coast to the East Coast of the United States. That route goes over the pole and right through our front yard.

With three deep-water, ice-free ports – Portland, Searsport and Eastport – Maine has an important stake in Arctic development, largely dependent on how well the U.S. advocates for, and defends, its interests in the region today. Yet an ancient law designed to protect U.S. domestic shipbuilding capacity is hampering its presence in the Arctic as changes continue to unfold. We are faced with a stark choice: Change how we protect domestic shipbuilding, or cede the Arctic to our geopolitical rivals.

The Jones Act requires that any ship carrying passengers or cargo between two U.S. ports must be built in the U.S., crewed by U.S. nationals and owned by a U.S. company. The law dates to the 1920s, but the idea of protecting a domestic shipbuilding industry from foreign competition is as old as the country itself. The very first U.S. Congress levied heavy tariffs on goods delivered on foreign ships.

While the law serves a critical purpose today, the economic reality is that Jones Act-compliant ships are expensive to build and operate. To maximize profits, large ships are usually flagged in other countries, and their masters devise clever ways to get around the U.S. law.

Opponents of the Jones Act argue that trade protection makes coastwise shipping prohibitively expensive; without it, they say, we could put cargo on barges that service coastal cities, removing thousands of trucks from the already choked and crumbling interstates.

Proponents cite national security interests. A generation ago, the U.S. shipbuilding industry saved the world from fascism by building Liberty ships faster than German submarines could sink them. Labor unions and shipbuilders also point to the decline in domestic manufacturing post-NAFTA and warn the same could happen with any weakening of the Jones Act under the auspices of free trade.


While the tension between free trade and the protection of vital industries remains a concern, our ability to perform immediate emergency or environmental response becomes critical as more people take to high latitudes. The summer ice is also melting faster than most expected, leaving behind new shipping lanes, new fishing grounds and a seabed teeming with natural resources in fragile ecosystems that depend on U.S. involvement for protection.

Russia has been quietly rebuilding its fleet of Soviet-era icebreakers, including scores of ice class ships, six nuclear-powered icebreakers and three more heavy crushers on their way. Even China, with no territory in the Arctic, has two icebreakers and another coming.

The United States, with the world’s most powerful and well-equipped military, has one heavy icebreaker, and it is 40 years old. We are building another, but it will not be in service before the middle of the next decade. Meanwhile, other countries, like Finland, have icebreakers sitting at the dock, but we cannot use them because of the Jones Act.

In the winter of 2012, the secretary of homeland security granted a temporary waiver of the Jones Act so that a Russian tanker could deliver an emergency supply of life-saving diesel to the iced-in city of Nome, Alaska. Similarly, a temporary Jones Act waiver should be granted for all ice-qualified vessels operating from the Aleutian Islands in the south to the Canadian border in the north and in all U.S. points above the Arctic Circle until a qualified Jones Act-compliant vessel becomes available.

Such a rule would allow existing vessels to develop and test the market for, among other things, commercial shipping with icebreaking capabilities. If it appears that the market will bear the increased cost of a U.S.-flagged ship providing those services, U.S. shipbuilders will build a ship and enter the market. When a U.S. company enters that market with a U.S. ship, the waiver is rescinded and the market is protected.

Rather than threaten domestic shipbuilding, this rule would promote it by allowing the market to highlight areas for growth in the industry. Such a rule would also immediately employ idle resources for U.S. benefit without compromising or threatening existing jobs.

Unlike other free trade problems, when it comes to the Arctic, the Jones Act does not force a choice between using a foreign- or U.S.-flagged icebreaker. Because no U.S. ships to fill the need exist, the Jones Act forces a choice between using a foreign-flagged vessel or nothing at all. That is not a choice when lives, the environment or a critical national interest is at stake.


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