In letter to Biden, Puerto Rico governor requests Jones Act waiver to ease fuel shortage

Carlos Giusti/AP

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi on Tuesday asked President Joe Biden to partially waive maritime shipping restrictions so more diesel and other fuels can arrive on the island immediately, a week after Hurricane Fiona knocked out the territory’s electrical grid and left residents relying on generators for daily living.

The letter escalates the showdown between Puerto Rican leaders and the Biden administration, as island officials seek the quickest way to deliver aid to residents even if it means granting an exception to a politically popular law supported by the president.

“A shortage of diesel and other fuel products will have an impact on our ability to provide essential services to citizens in Puerto Rico, thus affecting public health, security and continuity of government functions,“ said Pierluisi in the Sept. 27 letter, in which he requests that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security allow fuel deliveries from non-American ships at the island’s ports, including in San Juan, Guayanilla and Yabucoa.

Pierluisi’s letter comes after a cargo ship brought 300,000 diesel barrels to Puerto Rico’s waters, but could not reach port without a go-ahead from the Biden administration.

The Maritime Merchant Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act, mandates that only American ships, with U.S. owners, flags, and crews can deliver supplies from ports within the country. Since Puerto Rico is an island, it heavily relies on maritime imports to bring food, gas and other basic supplies from elsewhere.

In his letter to the president, Pierluisi said demand for fuel had “significantly increased” while authorities worked to fix the island’s power grid, which was already vulnerable before Fiona flooded and devastated many parts of the island and left millions without power or water.

As of Tuesday evening, 72% of customers had electricity through the island’s private power utility operator, authorities reported. However, while 92% of clients in the San Juan region had power restored, only 27% of clients had power in the Ponce region, which was hit hard by Hurricane Fiona.

Pierluisi added that the need for diesel shot up as residents used it to keep homes lit up and businesses afloat, while the island’s government dispensed fuel to public hospitals, emergency management centers, water pumping stations and other key infrastructure. Last week, the Puerto Rico National Guard also delivered diesel to hospitals and towns.

Businesses involved with supplying and delivering fuel reported that diesel was dwindling quicker than expected and supported waiving the Jones Act to refuel, according to the island’s governor.

“This specifically targeted and temporary relief would allow Puerto Rico to diversify its fuel sources, ease supply constraints, and mitigate the risk of a fuel shortage in the middle of the response to the emergency caused by Hurricane Fiona,” he said.

The letter is part of a rekindled debate over the century-old law and its impact on Puerto Rico during natural disasters. Critics say the Jones Act increases prices of basic goods for the island’s residents, while proponents say it protects American business and labor interests.

In 2017, when Hurricane Maria slammed the island, killing thousands and destroying the power grid and other critical infrastructure, former President Donald Trump waived the Jones Act for 10 days.

Deanne Criswell, FEMA’s administrator, told reporters Tuesday that federal officials are “doing everything that we can within our legal authority to support the people of Puerto Rico” but cautioned that it needs a waiver before it can act.

“We have a legal obligation to ensure that each waiver request meets the legal requirements of Congress, and so any kind of determination on that will be made by the secretary of Homeland Security,” she said.

Federal officials are “actively working” on the approval process now, she added, but declined to give a timeline for when it could happen.