A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Oil Spill, Foreign Help and the Jones Act

Q: Did Obama turn down foreign offers of assistance in cleaning up the Gulf oil spill? Did he refuse to waive Jones Act restrictions on foreign-flag vessels?

A: No to both questions. So far, offers from six foreign countries or entities have been accepted and only one offer has been rejected. Fifteen foreign-flag vessels are working on the cleanup, and none required a waiver.


Is it true that Obama blocked foreign help with cleaning up the Gulf oil spill because he refused to waive the Jones Act, which requires all boats to be American made and crewed by Americans to work in U.S. waters, even though it has been routinely waived for similar events?


We’ve received several questions about the federal government’s response to the oil spill. This one claims that a provision of the Merchant Marine Act, called the Jones Act, has prohibited foreign vessels from entering U.S. waters and assisting in the cleanup.

Some critics have charged — falsely — that Obama’s refusal to waive the Jones Act has kept foreign vessels from assisting in cleanup efforts. In a June 23 interview on "Fox & Friends," Republican Rep. Charles Djou of Hawaii was asked by show host Gretchen Carlson about the Jones Act and why the administration was refusing foreign assistance. Djou answered:

Djou, June 23: It’s important that we take help from whomever and wherever they’re willing to offer it. … So why are we not waiving the Jones Act to allow international help to come in? … Why we’re not waiving it here … is baffling.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, both Republicans, have also claimed that the Jones Act, which was temporarily lifted by President Bush after Hurricane Katrina, is now standing in the way of foreign vessels bringing assistance to the United States. They are both incorrect. Palin stated this in an interview with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren:

Palin, June 11: For one, there needs to be a waiving of the Jones Act so that we could have had many, many days ago, weeks ago, some help with skimmers from elsewhere, besides just U.S. flagships, come over and help in this tragedy. And that order needs to be given to [Coast Guard] Admiral [Thad] Allen right now. It’s amazing to me and to so many others that though President Bush had been able to waive Jones Act provisions for Katrina, President Obama hasn’t thought to do that yet? And yet surely, that has been suggested by those experts around him.

In reality, the Jones Act has yet to be an issue in the response efforts. The Deepwater Horizon response team reported in a June 15 press release that there are 15 foreign flagged ships currently participating in the oil spill cleanup. None of them needed a waiver because the Jones Act does not apply. The Jones Act is a trade and commerce law that was enacted in 1920 as part of a larger Marine Merchant Act. It requires all trade delivered between U.S. ports to be carried in U.S. flagged vessels constructed in the United States and owned by American citizens. The law states its purpose is to develop a merchant marine for national defense and commerce.

Why was the Jones Act waived as part of the Hurricane Katrina response, and why hasn’t it been waived now? Katrina inflicted massive infrastructure damage, which restricted the availability of key resources. According to the Deepwater Horizon response team: "A Jones Act waiver was granted during Hurricane Katrina due to the significant disruption in the production and transportation of petroleum and/or refined petroleum products in the region during that emergency and the impact this had on national defense." The Deepwater Horizon spill has yet to affect infrastructure or oil and gas availability; the damage is environmental, and foreign vessels are approved for delivering resources and conducting offshore skimming. Although the Jones Act is currently not applicable, the federal government has taken steps to expedite the waiver process should the oil spill response require a Jones Act waiver for trade and commerce.

Also, contrary to reports such as the one on "Fox & Friends," international assistance has been accepted. To date, 25 countries and four international organizations have offered support in the form of skimming vessels, containment and fire boom, technical assistance and response solutions, among others. A chart provided by the State Department shows that as of June 23 offers from six foreign countries or entities had been accepted. Fifty more offers were under consideration — including multiple offers from a single country or entity. One offer had been declined: France offered a chemical dispersant that is not approved for use in the United States. President Barack Obama described this process in his May 27 press conference:

Obama, May 27: The job of our response team is to say, okay, if 17 countries have offered equipment and help, let’s evaluate what they’ve offered: How fast can it get here? Is it actually going to be redundant, or will it actually add to the overall effort — because in some cases, more may not actually be better. And decisions have been made based on the best information available that says here’s what we need right now. It may be that a week from now or two weeks from now or a month from now the offers from some of those countries might be more effectively utilized.

Each offer must be compliant not only with the needs outlined by the Unified Command, but also with U.S. safety regulations. The Unified Command provided us with this statement and information:

Unified Command, June 22: Those offers of international assistance that were not accepted, while greatly appreciated, did not meet the operational requirements of the Unified Command. These offers have not been declined because they may be needed in the future as response strategies change. Some challenges in accepting these offers included:

  • Equipment failed to meet US requirements/specifications (i.e. dispersant not on approved list/containment boom made of non-approved material)
  • Contingencies placed on the offers proved logistically impracticable when compared to other sources.
  • In one instance, the offering country’s export laws prohibited delivery of the assistance
  • Contingencies placed on the offers made it difficult for the Unified Command to meet the contingency

Also, all offers, except for a few, come with a serious price tag. The Associated Press compared these offers with recent aid that the U.S. gave to some of these countries. The AP reported:

Associated Press, June 18: U.S. disaster aid is almost always free of charge; other nations expect the U.S. to pay for help.

"These offers are not typically offers of aid," said Lt. Erik Halvorson, a Coast Guard spokesman. "Normally, they are offers to sell resources to BP or the U.S. government."

Reports claiming that the federal government has refused help are not only incorrect — foreign assistance has been utilized — but are also misleading: purchasing resources and expertise is vastly different from accepting "foreign aid."

–Joshua Goldman

Correction, July 1: As of June 23, the U.S. had accepted six offers of assistance from six foreign countries or entities. The original post said five offers were accepted. We have updated the post to include the correct number.      


“Admiral Allen Provides Guidance to Ensure Expedited Jones Act Waiver Processing Should It Be Needed.” Press release. Deepwater Horizon Unified Command. 15 Jun 2010.

“Fox & Friends.” Interview with Rep. Charles Djou. Fox News. 23 Jun 2010.

“Jones Act Fact Sheet.” Press release. Deepwater Horizon Unified Command. 18 Jun 2010

Jonsson, Patrick. "Jones Act: Maritime politics strain Gulf oil spill cleanup." Christian Science Monitor. 19 Jun 2010.

Merchant Marine Act. Pub.L. 66-261. 5 Jun 1920.

“On The Record.” Transcript. Fox News. 11 Jun 2010.

Sullivan, Eileen and Matthew Lee. "Foreign help on oil spill comes with a price tag." Associated Press. 18 Jun 2010.

Deepwater Horizon Unified Command. E-mail sent to FactCheck.org. 22 Jun 2010.

U.S. Department of State. Chart on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response: International Offers of Assistance from Governments and International Bodies. 21 Jun 2010.

The White House. Remarks by the President on the Gulf Oil Spill. Office of the Press Secretary. 27 May 2010.