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Trump administration considering Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico

Trump administration considering Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico
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The Trump administration said it is evaluating whether to waive U.S. shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico, where residents are without power after two devastating hurricanes.

A decision on the issue is “unlikely” to be made Wednesday, senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said on a call with reporters, as DHS works with other parts of the government to make a determination.

President Trump also said it was possible the waiver could be lifted, though he said there was opposition to doing so.

"We're thinking about that, but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted," Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday afternoon when asked if his administration would waive the Jones Act.

"We have a lot of ships out there right now," Trump continued, noting that he would visit the U.S. island territory next week to survey the devastation.

The Trump administration has faced fierce backlash following reports on Tuesday that the agency would not be temporarily lifting the Jones Act rule, which requires that cargo shipments between U.S. ports only take place on American-made and operated vessels.

But senior officials cautioned that a waiver might not be necessary in this instance, because there are currently enough U.S. ships to deliver cargo to Puerto Rico.

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“As based upon our current conversations, there is not a lack of vessels to move the goods that we need to support the humanitarian relief efforts,” an official told reporters Wednesday.

The DHS issued a two-week waiver, requested by the Department of Defense (DOD), to allow fuel shipments to Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Critics argue it only makes sense to provide a waiver to Puerto Rico if similar ones were issued for the U.S. mainland. They argue it could help get gasoline and other supplies delivered more quickly and cheaply to the island.

Several members of Congress have requested a one-year Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico, where officials estimate the island could be without power for up to six months.

Formal waiver requests traditionally come from the DOD or U.S. shippers, but the DHS agreed on Wednesday to evaluate the arguments raised by the lawmakers.

But senior DHS officials emphasized that under the law, they are only allowed to issue waivers if it’s in the interest of national security and if the Department of Transportation determines there aren’t enough U.S. vessels to deliver cargo.

However, the agency would not need to consider the latter standard if the request had come directly from the DOD.

"We are constrained," said one DHS official.

The DHS also pointed out that the biggest roadblock to relief efforts is transporting goods around the island, since its ports and other critical infrastructure are severely damaged.

Updated: 1:39 p.m.