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How waiving a 102-year-old law may help New England get easier access to natural gas

(021308 Boston, MA ) LNG TANKER ARRIVES - The LNG tanker Suez Boston arrived in Boston harbor and was backed under the Tobin Brige to the Everett port on Wednesday afternoon . Wednesday, February 13, 2008. Staff photo by Mike Adaskaveg.
Mike Adaskaveg / Boston Herald
MediaNews Group / Getty
The liquefied natural gas tanker Suez Boston, sailing under the flag of Norway, is escorted under Boston's Tobin Bridge in 2008. Importing goods, like liquefied natural gas, into U.S. ports with foreign vessels is fine, but the Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be shipped by American-built, American-operated and American-flagged ships.

On Oct. 27, Eversource Energy President and CEO Joe Nolan wrote a letter to President Joe Biden warning him of the potential power shortages across New England if the region experiences sustained extreme cold. In the letter, Eversource asked for a number of proactive measures, including waiving the Jones Act.

What is this law? And why is it coming up now?

The Jones Act of 1920 requires cargo shipped between U.S. ports to be carried by ships built in the U.S., with American crews and flying American flags. While this act makes it harder to get goods directly from one U.S. port to another, it protects the U.S. shipping industry.

And this worries Eversource. The company is concerned that it may make it difficult to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) into the Northeast in an emergency situation.

Nolan says that other foreign vessels are allowed to stop at the Gulf of Mexico to import natural gas, so Eversource is asking to allow those same foreign ships to make a stop in another American port.

“If I want to buy, in the Northeast, I want to buy LNG from a tanker, it has to come from Trinidad or Tobago,” Nolan said. “It seems ludicrous to me that we can’t get American LNG from the Gulf up into the Northeast. That’s what I’m looking for.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said New England has adequate power supplies for normal winter weather, but the region could struggle in periods of unusually prolonged cold because of the its limited ability to import natural gas. Nolan argues that this possibility — plus an already tight global energy supply — poses a serious public health and safety threat.

Nolan told Connecticut Public that he is confident of making progress throughout this winter working with the Department of Energy.

“So the goal here is to get the name of the folks at the Department of Energy that are going to give us the waiver to the Jones Act,” he said. “And [get] access to the strategic petroleum reserve so that these different units can get fuel when we need them.”

While waiving the Jones Act seems like a simple solution, critics claim it poses a threat to national security as well as the country’s ability to sustain a shipping industry.

Charles Venator Santiago, director of the Puerto Rican Studies Initiative and professor at UConn’s Department of Political Science, told Connecticut Public the Jones Act “protects an industry that would otherwise collapse because the U.S. can’t compete with the rest of the world for cheap labor and cheap vessels.”

At time of publication, neither the White House nor the Department of Energy had confirmed whether they would waive the Jones Act. So for now, many people across New England will consume LNG that is harder to get — and hope for a mild winter.

Note: Gregory B. Butler, who is an executive with Eversource Energy, is a member of Connecticut Public's Board of Trustees.

Emily Caminiti is working with the Connecticut Public newsroom in fall 2022.