The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: GOP lawmakers pressed Trump to waive Jones Act for Puerto Rico

with Paulina Firozi


In the latest sign of GOP lawmakers' willingness to buck the White House, some Republican senators Wednesday pressed President Trump to exempt Puerto Rico from a 1920 shipping law to aid the plight of the U.S. territory after Hurricane Maria.

Initially, the Trump administration wavered in waiving the the Jones Act, a 97-year-old law that allows only U.S.-owned and -operated ships to move goods between U.S. shores, for the hurricane-ravaged island.  

But under pressure from fellow Republicans, President Trump acquiesced and granted the waiver, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Thursday morning. There was also a sense that Trump isn't doing enough to help Puerto Ricans, slow to send enough supplies to the devastated island after speedier and more efficient responses to the impacts of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively.

The drumbeat for a waiver from GOP lawmakers began Tuesday with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the most vocal intraparty critics of the president in the Senate.

Calling out the Department of Homeland Security, Arizona's senior senator wrote a letter to the agency: "I am very concerned by the Department’s decision not to waive the Jones Act for current relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria."

McCain, like many critics of the law, argued that the shipping restrictions drive up the price of fuel, food and other goods shipped to the U.S. territory in normal times. 

Jones Act supporters, however, contend the law protects domestic jobs in shipbuilding and other fields and that, in the case of Puerto Rico, there are enough U.S.-flagged ships to meet the island's needs.

McCain, along with oil companies and other business interests, has long loathed the Jones Act. In July, he introduced an amendment repealing the law, but his effort failed to gain much traction.

McCain's request was echoed by other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“I would absolutely support that,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told reporters on Wednesday when asked about waiving the Jones Act.

“If that's what we need to do — in terms of being able to get things shipped, to help with the recovery — I think we should do that,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a separate interview

“I think they should,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “The administration is saying that it's not necessary, they have plenty of vessels. My argument is, what harm would there be to doing it? If they don't need it, they don't need it, but at least it's available to them. I've asked them to do it, and I think they might reconsider.”

At first, DHS said the issue with transporting essentials to Puerto Rico was the damaged ports on the island, and stated there were more than enough U.S.-flagged ships available to meet the needs.

But on Wednesday morning, McCain tweeted that DHS denied a waiver request:

But the department said it never received a request for one.

“In terms of the Jones Act waiver, we have researched this — I read it in the news clips this morning — we have no known Jones Act waiver requests,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke told lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday. She added, "We are double-checking to make sure it isn't true."

The Trump administration's foot-dragging in granting a waiver after Hurricane Maria, but not after Harvey and Irma (the shipping industry thought the Trump administration lifted the Jones Act after Harvey before it was necessary), fed into a narrative that president is less concerned about hurricane victims in the Caribbean than he is about those on the mainland. 

That narrative was kicked into high gear after Chelsea Clinton, the former first daughter, tweeted out a Wall Street Journal editorial board piece, "Second-Class Puerto Rico:"

Trump's decision to grant an exemption will not be enough to satisfy all lawmakers. Long characterized as "the law strangling Puerto Rico," the Jones Act had been seen even before the storm as an impediment to the recovery of the debt-saddled territory. On Monday, seven House Democrats, led by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), asked in a letter to DHS to grant one-year waiver for Puerto Rico to help the island get on its feet. Velázquez also introduced a bill this week to broaden the government's waiver authority under the Jones Act.

Other critics of the law, such as James Coleman, an energy law professor at Southern Methodist University, said before the White House announcement that “some are suspicious that prejudice may make the administration more willing to adopt a 'hands are tied' argument for enforcing the law.”

Indeed, Trump provided another explanation on Wednesday to reporters about why a waiver hadn't been granted yet.

“Well, we're thinking about that,” the president said, “but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people, and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted. And we have a lot of ships out there right now.”


-- Plane drain: Who else in the Trump administration has been racking up frequent-flier miles? EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February to the tune of $58,000, report The Post's Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin. CBS News also has the story.

Records provided to a congressional oversight committee and obtained by The Post reveal the following about about Pruitt’s travels:

  • The most expensive flight, which cost the taxpayer $36,068.50, took Pruitt on a military jet from Cincinnati to John F. Kennedy airport in New York in early June so he could catch a flight to Italy.

  • On July 27, Pruitt and six staff members took a flight on an Interior Department plane from Tulsa to a small town of Guymon, Okla for $14,434.50.

  • On August 4, Pruitt and three staff members took a private air charter from Denver to Durango, Colo. for $5,719.58.

  • On August 9, Pruitt and two staffers traveling in North Dakota flew on a state-owned plane to a Grand Forks event for $2,144.40.

“Most people can’t lease a plane to fly around,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said. “I think as a public servant, you have to try to set some sort of example.”

-- Don't let this story get lost in that jet-engine noise: Pruitt has threatened to end payments for the Justice Department’s work enforcing antipollution laws, The New York Times' Charlie Savage reports.

Here's what's happening: "Under Mr. Pruitt, the E.P.A. has quietly said it may cut off a major funding source for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division,' Savage writes. No decision will be made until the EPA's budget is passed by Congress.

The confusing part: The proposed cut is head-scratching because that division "handle[s] litigation on behalf of the E.P.A.’s Superfund program seeking to force polluters to pay for cleaning up sites they left contaminated with hazardous waste," according to Savage. Again and again, Pruitt has said cleaning up Superfund sites will be a top priority of his tenure.

The EPA's response: It was, again, to use the Trump media playbook to attack the Times, as the agency has done in the past. Liz Bowman, spokeswoman for Pruitt, called the Times’s report “yet another conspiracy theory by The New York Times to draw space in the administration that doesn’t exist.”

-- Zinke under scrutiny: As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke charged a third of his staff with being “disloyal” to the Trump administration, an inspector general was investigating whether the department acted inappropriately when it reassigned dozens of its employees, The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears reports.

That office is working “to determine if the U.S. Department of the Interior followed appropriate guidelines and best practices in the reassignment of Senior Executive Service employees,” according to spokeswoman Gillian Carroll. Caroll did not specify when the probe would conclude.

Katherine Atkinson, an attorney representing Joel Clement, a climate scientist who was reassigned to a revenue accounting position from his role as a director of policy analysis, said the moves violated the law. In absence of a face-to-face meeting or, presumably, a telephone call, the individual should receive a written notice of the reassignment “with a statement of the reasons for the reassignment, at least 60 days before the effective date of the reassignment.” Clement and several other career appointees say none of that happened.

What to know: Don't expect to know much more soon from Interior's inspector general. Though the office says it's taking to some reforms, the department's inspector general tends not to publish many of its investigations, according to E&E News.

-- ”Strong leadership is non-negotiable:” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he plans to vote against President Trump’s nominee to lead the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“While I appreciate Mr. Zatezalo’s willingness to serve, I cannot support his confirmation to lead MSHA,” Manchin said in his statement, the Washington Examiner reported. “After reviewing his qualifications and record of safety during his time in the coal industry, I am not convinced that Mr. Zatezalo is suited to oversee the federal agency that implements and enforces mine safety laws and standards.”

The West Virginia senator cited mine disasters in West Virginia in the statement, saying he has "comforted too many families who have lost loved ones serving our nation in the mines," and in his opinion "strong leadership at the Mine Safety & Health Administration is non-negotiable."

President Trump says the GOP tax plan is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to lower taxes on the middle class and businesses. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)


-- It’s been a week since Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane. The island is still struggling to get the power back on, and food and water shortages continue. Officials reopened the island’s biggest port on Tuesday but distribution of supplies has been slow.

CBS News said that more than 3,000 shipping containers had been sitting at the port in San Juan since Saturday. CBS’s David Begnaud reported from the port, saying the problem is “people aren’t showing up to pick it up:"

Begnaud said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said there is a shortage of truck drivers to take the supplies to stores. Officials are asking bus drivers, commercial drivers, “anyone who can drive a truck legally who can help us — please come,” Begnaud explained.

Watch his report below:

-- Meanwhile, the Trump administration is prohibiting lawmakers in both parties from visiting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to “keep focused on recovery missions there,” reports our colleague Ed O’Keefe.

A group of at least 10 senators and members of the House were planning to travel to the U.S. territory in a trip that was planned by the office of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is in the middle of a federal corruption trial. Another group planned to go on Sunday.

But Ed writes that "since Monday evening, permission to use military aircraft to make the trips has been denied by the White House and Pentagon."

-- The Trump administration is beefing up its supplies and personnel being dispatched to the island, Arelis R. Hernández, Dan Lamothe, Ed O'Keefe and Joel Achenbach report, “as it becomes increasingly clear that the U.S. government response to Hurricane Maria so far has been inadequate and overmatched by the scale of the disaster.”

Ramón Rosario, Rosselló’s secretary of public affairs and public policy, told The Post that the governor asked for additional help, including soliders.

“If they send 1,000, we’ll take it,” Rosario said, referring to military personnel. “If they send 10,000, we’ll take it.”

-- Getting the lights back on: About 97 percent of the island was still without power on Wednesday. Creditors of the bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority have offered a $1 billion loan and a discount on existing debt to help move toward restoring electricity.

Reuters reports that the loan will “allow PREPA to fulfill a cost-sharing requirement for FEMA aid, enabling the utility to qualify for FEMA funds of at least $3 billion, and at most $9 billion, according to a statement from the creditor.”

“PREPA can either spend the new capital on immediate recovery efforts or use it toward the required matching funds for FEMA,” the source said.

-- FEMA said Wednesday it had gotten in touch with all 78 mayors in Puerto Rico and that some of them had received satellite phones, the Los Angeles Times reported.

An unforgettable image from the island's governor:


-- Renewed ideas for power: The continued outages in Puerto Rico and elsewhere on Caribbean islands following a recent spate of storms have sparked an interest in ways of shifting power grids to renewable energy, reports The Post’s Chris Mooney.

Members of the CARICOM consortium of Caribbean nations have a goal of reaching 47 percent renewable energy by 2027, Mooney writes, and this hurricane season has only served to remind the islands of that agenda and inspired ideas for how to rebuild the grid system after near-total devastation.

Adding more renewables, and moving away from centralized power grids to more so-called ‘microgrids,’ could lower costs and increase resilience in the face of storms, several energy experts said. And island nations, already at the forefront of pushing for action on climate change, have been moving this way for a while.

Operating a centralized power plant with natural gas, rather than diesel or heavy fuel oil, would save costs but would not necessarily increase resilience when hurricanes strike. You would still have a central plant, distribution stations and a large number of transmission lines to get electricity out across the island.

Mooney also notes that ideas like small modular nuclear reactors and swapping in liquefied natural gas for fuel oil have been tossed around .


-- Mind the crowds: The National Park Service logged a record 331 million visits last year and is on track to pass that record again this year, the New York Times reports. But the overcrowding is taking a toll: The Times reports that park managers are considering requiring reservations for entry at Zion National Park and there are three options that were proposed to the public. One is for people to make online reservations, one would require reservations for certain parts of the park and the third option is for no changes. About 1,500 people sent in comments. A final decision is expected in 2018.

From the Times:

But lately, both visitors and nature are suffering. [Jack] Burns, who is on a team that is considering a reservation system, said some people showed up for a vacation they had planned for months, spent a day in the gridlock and turned around. Rangers, stressed by the frustrated masses, have started a monthly meeting to discuss “visitor use” that some say has turned into a group-therapy session.

And the changing climate is a factor as well.

At the same time, park officials have identified the heat and floods of climate change as one of the system’s greatest perils. In Zion, as maximum temperatures in the summer have risen, the heat-intolerant American pika, a tiny mammal related to rabbits, has disappeared. Rangers call it a sign of what is likely to come: smaller streams, more frequent droughts and other shifts in the ecosystem.

-- Uh-oh: There’s a hurricane hunter that has failed three times in a little more than a week, reports The Post's Jason Samenow. On Monday, the Gulfstream jet was flying through Maria when the cabin door failed and the mission was aborted. There isn’t a backup aircraft.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced legislation that President Trump signed in April that would require the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to have a second aircraft. In early September, he chided NOAA for failing to acquire such a backup.

In a letter to NOAA’s acting head in early September, Nelson wrote that “NOAA has taken no major steps to acquire reliable backup,” Samenow reports, citing a letter obtained by The Post. “It is unacceptable that we again find ourselves in the midst of hurricane season without reliable NOAA aircraft reconnaissance and without backup capability,” Nelson added.

“The agency utterly failed to heed several warnings,” Nelson said in a statement to The Post on Tuesday, calling the Gulfstream jet’s latest failures “outrageous.”

-- Another sea change: A majority of Americans now believe climate change played a role in the severity of the recent surge of hurricanes in Florida and Texas, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. 

The survey found that 55 percent of people believe climate change fueled the intensity of the hurricanesreport The Post’s Emily Guskin and Brady Dennis. That’s a marked increase from the 2005 Post-ABC poll, in which a month after Hurricane Katrina, 39 percent of American’s believed that. In the latest poll, 41 percent believe that severe weather events just happen from time to time, down fro 54 percent who believed that in 2005.


-- Hogan v. EPA: The state of Maryland is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, demanding that it require stricter pollution standards for power plants in five states.

“Maryland has made significant progress in improving our air quality in recent years, and that progress is in jeopardy due to a lack of action by the EPA that dates back to the previous administration,” Gov. Larry Hogan  (R) said in a statement announcing the lawsuit Wednesday morning.

The Hogan administration estimates that 70 percent of ozone pollution originates in upwind states, the Baltimore Sun reports, and the lawsuit would “require 36 generating units at 19 plants in upwind states to install the same scrubbers and other air-cleaning technology that Maryland requires plants within its borders to install,” according to the report.



  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry will take a tour of the Jeddo Coal mine in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
  • National Clean Energy Week continues.

Coming Up

  • The Global CCS Institute hosts an event on business opportunities in the global low-carbon economy on October 3.

Stephen Colbert talks to Michael Bloomberg about climate change:

Alabama votes for Trumpism without Trump:

See a toddler take a bite out of Prince Harry's popcorn: