Maritime Legislative Report Card:
Early returns suggest that the loss of key maritime advocacy lawmakers and the paucity of commercial savvy on the federal level are serving to marginalize the domestic waterfront and energy sectors.
It wasn’t too long ago that a former key official in the previous administration advised me that the problem with today’s version of the federal government and legislative arms isn’t the lack of passion to get the job done right. Instead, I was told, the issue is directly related to the lack of business expertise at key federal appointee levels and in congress itself. In the haste to scour the “lobbyist culture” from Washington politics (an effort that has failed miserably), we’ve also quite possibly thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
Just a handful of days into the New Year, this is arguably not the time to make judgments on legislative reforms, current events and other variables affecting the collective domestic waterfront. On the other hand, only 14 days into the first session of the 112th Congress, at least two new efforts are underway that will impact maritime stakeholders, energy players and the consumers that rely on both. The news elsewhere is, at best, mixed. Nineteen days doesn’t make for a track record. That said; if the early battles are an indication of things to come, we might just be looking at some (disturbing) trends.
In the New Year, missteps on key transportation, infrastructure and energy policy are truly a bipartisan effort. For the maritime community, at least, the old rock-and-roll refrain remains the same: Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
- Slightly Off Course: Getting the traffic off the roads
Rep. John Mica (R – FL) started 2011 off moving in the right direction and then veered well off-course when he announced goals to lessen highway wear-and-tear and by default, highway trust fund (HTF) spending on pavement repair that is the most obvious byproduct of that abuse. The newly installed chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wants to move auto and commercial truck traffic off the nation’s highways – a position that mirrors that of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who also advocates shifting traffic to other transit modes.
Predictably, the smart strategy of reducing road maintenance as a way to get more out the already challenged HTF budget isn’t popular with the trucking lobby. That’s understandable. This time, however – and unlike the lip service that LaHood at least gives to shortsea funding – Mica’s proposals make little or no mention of the waterfront. Instead, he hopes to solve the problem by diverting a greater share of traffic onto the railways. In this case, I have to agree with the folks at the American Trucking Association. This is a bad idea if it exclusively involves beefing up rail infrastructure to the detriment of everything else.
Instead of looking to the possibility of improving ferry connections to alleviate worsening commute times for motorists, the Florida Republican’s attention has been diverted to a proven loser; the auto train service running from – you guessed it – Florida to Washington, DC. So much for addressing those pesky pork projects…
As a panacea for the truck problem, Mica proposes freeing up cash for rail transit enhancements. Someone needs to let the congressman know that if shortsea shipping, as many would have you believe, isn’t economically feasible, then trains moving in and out of Midwest rail yards at an average speed of 7 MPH aren’t going to get the job done either. And, nowhere in the new dogma does there appear to be any increase in the amount of spending (already badly dwarfed by every other mode including rail) for maritime infrastructure projects. I miss Jim Oberstar already.
You can be sure that Oberstar’s (D – MN) policy statement, were he still in charge, would have contained different language. Nevertheless, we can always hope that our U.S. Maritime Administration (the self-described “oddball” member of the DOT with no regulatory teeth) will step up to the plate and let the new chairman know where he has veered into shoal waters. Or, maybe not. One thing, however, is now painfully apparent: anyone who thought that the loss of congressional maritime advocates such as Oberstar and Taylor wouldn’t be a big deal is sadly mistaken.
- No New Drilling: * sigh *
On the bulletin board in my office, I keep a tattered gas station receipt close at hand (and in plain view) for those times that I think I might do something stupid without thinking first of the downstream consequences. The receipt details 20.019 gallons of self-serve regular unleaded gasoline that I pumped, at $4.199 per gallon, on September 28th 2008. I waited all night in line at my local gas station, my car running on fumes, for the privilege of paying more than $84 for a tank of fuel. You may remember (or not) that mid-Atlantic gasoline shortages came in the wake of a couple of Gulf Coast hurricanes that interrupted offshore oil production, refinery capacity and yes, supplies from two major petroleum product pipelines.
Earlier this month and roughly at about the same time that the 800-mile, 600,000+ barrel-per-day Trans Alaskan Pipeline System was experiencing its latest leak and associated interruption in service, Representative Pallone (D-NJ) introduced the No New Drilling Act of 2011 (I couldn’t possibly make this name up), which predictably hopes to “amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit the leasing of any area of the outer Continental Shelf for the exploration, development, or production of oil, gas, or any other mineral.” I don’t think that language requires any amplification on my part.
It is bills like HR 261 – and a similar effort (HR 264) introduced by Rep. Thompson (D-CA) to permanently prohibit oil and gas leasing in areas off the coast of California – that defy logic also at the same time that crude oil prices have eclipsed $90 per barrel and keep on moving north. Predictions of $4.00 regular unleaded gasoline prices this summer might spur some much needed domestic conservation by U.S. consumers. Maybe that’s what it will take. On the other hand, preventing oil exploration interests from finding new sources of energy is hardly the way to help bridge the gap between a petroleum dependent economy and the future of cleaner and greener energy. At least, not from where I am sitting.
I’m all for conservation and a greener planet. In the meantime, policy proposals like the one put forward by Rep. Pallone are unhelpful, especially when they come at the exact same time as interruptions of as much as 15 percent of our domestic crude oil output. By all means, let’s do it greener, cleaner and safer when we drill in the ultra deepwater areas. While we’re at it, let’s look for alternative ways to power our cars, factories and homes.
HR 261 proposes to do little more than ensure that the trade deficit will continue to spiral upward while our capacity to produce domestic energy – along with associated energy and waterfront jobs – declines. As a byproduct of the new GOP-controlled house in the 112th congress, you have to hope that this bill is dead on arrival, because you can also be sure that the Congressman from New Jersey doesn’t keep a tattered gasoline purchase receipt on HIS bulletin board.
- In the News: Pilots and Pirates
Disturbing Piracy Numbers
According to the piracy watchdog group International Maritime Bureau, pirates seized a record 1,181 hostages on 53 vessels in 2010. The numbers represent the highest ever recorded since the center started monitoring these types of attacks in 1991. With most of the attacks occurring off the lawless coast of Somalia, the statistics only serve to underscore (a.) the impotence of the expensive, ongoing International response, (b.) the growing importance of private security solutions for the world’s commercial fleets and (c.) the need to find a lasting solution ashore in Somalia, where a functioning government has not existed since – you guessed it again – 1991.
I have never been a fan of arming merchant mariners to fend off pirate attacks, but faced with these appalling numbers, I am (ever so slowly) warming up to the proposed practice. Actually, I would be far more comfortable with armed security details for vessels traveling in harm’s way. But, at what ultimate cost to the global supply chain? The reluctance of individual states, with or without the backing of the United Nations, to do anything about the crisis in Somalia is understandable. No one, much less the United States, wants to end up dealing with another “Blackhawk Down” nightmare scenario.
In the absence of a workable solution ashore, we need to come to the realization that aggressive defensive means will be the only way to fully prevent another 1,200 mariners aboard 50 or more vessels from becoming part of the IMB statistical chart in January of 2012. It won’t be a perfect solution and it will likely involve casualties of one sort or another. Nevertheless, it is way past time to bring on the guards. There: I said it right out loud.
Encouraging Pilot Numbers
Not to be confused with pirates – except perhaps where they earn movie star wages for transits of less than 2.5 miles on two reciprocal courses, using bowthrusters and three tugs – pilots everywhere earn their fees and then some. Nowhere is this truer than in Boston where, at long last and only after years of trying, local harbor pilots won a well-deserved rate increase. Signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in the nick of time as the latest legislative session came to an end, the rate increase ends an arduous and sometimes rancorous 10-year process that threatened the safety and viability of the most important niche port in the U.S. Northeast.
We chronicled this issue a couple of weeks ago in a standalone column on this WEB site, and not just because the process was newsworthy to the maritime community. The blanket perception that pilots everywhere make too much money for too little work also deserves to be explored. I have covered pilot issues for more than 15 years; from Lake Charles to Galveston, Boston, Long Island Sound and a couple of places in between. We’ll continue to do that here at MarPro.
Occasionally, you get to write a pilot piece that has a happy ending. This week, the January 13 signing of the rate bill in the Commonwealth presented such an opportunity. I’m happy to end a less-than-cheery column on a happy note. As 2011 moves forward, let’s hope for similar items that benefit the entire waterfront. – MarPro.
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Managing Editor of the new Maritime Professional print magazine. You can also read his work in MarineNews and Maritime Reporter magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.