There’s a new vessel in New Bedford’s offshore wind fleet. But this one isn’t building wind turbines. Its crew has a different mission: sending a message to the European developers — and Congress — that offshore wind jobs belong to U.S. workers.
Or, at least, that offshore wind contracts belong to the cohort of Louisiana-based shipping companies and one GOP mega-donor that funds the seafaring crusade.
On Thursday, the Jones Act Enforcer, as the vessel was recently renamed, cut through an early morning fog toward the site of Vineyard Wind. There, construction of the nation’s first utility-scale offshore wind farm was well underway. About a dozen bright-yellow monopiles sprouted up from the ocean floor, tended by a small fleet of installation and support vessels contracted by Vineyard Wind.
Aaron Smith focused his binoculars on the stern of a 436-foot cable-laying ship called the Giulio Verne. It confirmed what he already knew, but was eager to show the media: the vessel hailed from Naples, Italy.
“The promise we were told is that offshore wind would create jobs. Good-paying U.S. jobs,” Smith told the group of reporters invited on the vessel. Pointing out to the Italian-flagged cable layer, he continued: “That’s not creating U.S. jobs.”
Smith is president of Offshore Marine Services Association (OSMA), a Louisiana-based trade association that charters the Jones Act Enforcer. In June, as the first phases of construction began on Vineyard Wind and South Fork Wind, the 150-foot ship steamed through the Gulf and up the East Coast before arriving at the Port of New Bedford. Its goal, as the ship’s name describes, is to document potential violations of the Jones Act, a maritime law that aims to protect American jobs in domestic waters by prohibiting foreign vessels and foreign crews from transporting goods between two U.S. points.
Despite the name, the trade association has no authority to “enforce” the Jones Act. Instead, Smith and his crew are on the front lines of a battle that has been playing out in the nation’s courts for over a century. Starting with the oil and gas industries in the Gulf, Smith said developers have relentlessly introduced loopholes allowing them to skirt the Jones Act and undercut American industry. “The law is simple,” Smith told reporters. “In order for it to work, the loopholes need to be closed.”
Smith’s plan is to submit evidence of potential violations to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. So far, Smith said, he has submitted “dozens” of such reports. But he says the agency has turned a blind eye to enforcing the Jones Act, allowing offshore wind developers to exploit loopholes — hiring foreign crews at much lower wages than U.S. workers and disincentivizing investment in domestically-built offshore wind ships.
On Thursday, however, Smith said he could spot no clear violations of the Jones Act at the Vineyard Wind site. He speculated that maybe, just maybe, the Italian-flagged vessel could be violating the act by transporting cables from the seafloor (one U.S. point) to the project’s substation (another U.S. point). Or, he said, maybe it was just exploiting another loophole.
“The Vineyard Wind Project complies with all US laws, including the Jones Act,” wrote Andrew Doba, spokesperson for Vineyard Wind. He continued: “We fully support the US maritime and shipbuilding industry and encourage Congress to enact legislation to provide incentives for the construction of a robust fleet of vessels and mariner workforce training to support the nascent US offshore wind industry.”
Some critics say that the Jones Act is protectionist and outdated in today’s global economy. Foreign ships have transited American waters for centuries. In the offshore wind industry, American companies have not yet built the types of highly-specialized ships that have been building wind farms in Europe for decades.
There are also economic challenges that have strained offshore wind development. Citing unexpected costs due to inflation and the war in Ukraine, Avangrid (one partner in the Vineyard Wind project) is terminating its contracts with state utilities for its Commonwealth Wind project. Other projects face similar uncertainty.
“You can not have offshore wind in the United States without foreign vessels,” said Charlie Papavizas, a maritime lawyer who is currently writing a book about the Jones Act.
Other critics say OMSA’s media campaign, which has been featured in The Boston Globe and the Associated Press, is little more than a stunt to secure contracts for the trade association’s own members — specifically one Louisiana-based company.
The “Enforcer” vessel is owned by Harvey Gulf International Marine, a transportation company that services the oil and natural gas industries. It has been led by three generations of the Guidry family, Louisiana power brokers who have become quite wealthy through political alliances and Gulf oil. Currently at the helm is Shane Guidry, who also serves as special assistant to the state’s Attorney General, and is described in Louisiana media as “possibly the biggest GOP donor” in the state.
The loopholes that Smith alleges allow offshore wind developers to skirt Jones Act requirements are carried over from the domestic oil and natural gas industries in the Gulf. Now, the Louisiana-based marine companies are worried the same loopholes will box them out of the new era of ocean energy development.
“Shane Guidry is spending his own money to send out the Jones Act Enforcer,” said one person familiar with Harvey Gulf and the Guidry family. “He believes, from a business perspective, it’s a good investment.”
Over the next decade, some two-dozen offshore wind developers are expected to invest upwards of $12 billion per year to build out the nation’s green energy supply. And as development ramps up, companies are jockeying to secure their own piece of it.
New Bedford longshoremen are competing against Boston trade union. New England tug boats are competing against national marine transportation companies. All are competing against European engineers and specialized European fleets. And ultimately, green energy is competing against fossil fuels to supply energy into the grid.
So, in the midst of this competition, OMSA has joined the fray.
Still, the Biden administration has touted offshore wind, which is set to receive billions of dollars in subsidies through the Inflation Reduction Act, as a way to create tens of thousands of American jobs. In July, Biden visited a shipyard in Philadelphia to celebrate construction of the first specialized offshore wind vessel to be made in the United States, where he announced his administration is “bringing offshore-wind supply chains back home.”
Even if OMSA’s rogue activism can be seen as serving the interests of its members, like Shane Guidry, it can also be seen as calling on the president to honor his commitments. In the marine services industry, “All of the steel right now is in Louisiana,” said another lawyer who represents similar contractors. “They can be fighting for the American workforce and the interests of their own companies. It’s not mutually exclusive.”
Smith denies that the motives of the Jones Act Enforcer are self-serving.
“It’s about ensuring the law is enforced,” Smith said. “It’s about closing the loopholes that allow foreign nationals to undercut American industry in our own country.”
On Thursday, after an unsuccessful expedition to identify any clear violations of the Jones Act, the crew of the Enforcer vessel steamed back to port. It passed through the New Bedford hurricane barrier and along the staging area for Vineyard Wind. Smith traced the large, red cranes and towering turbine components looming over the waterfront.
“There is so much potential for this industry to transform the American economy,” he said. “But if there’s no enforcement, it won’t change a thing.”
Email reporter Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.