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Use of Offshore Supply Vessels in Disaster Response: NOSAC Issues Final Recommendations to US Coast Guard

On September 11, 2019, the National Offshore Safety Advisory Committee (NOSAC) submitted its final report to the US Coast Guard regarding the ability of offshore supply vessels (OSV) to assist in disaster response activities.[1]

Produced by industry experts and driven by proposals from the Offshore Marine Service Association NOSAC’s report addresses regulatory challenges faced by OSV operators after Hurricane Maria in 2017. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, several US flag vessels sought to carry cargo (e.g., fuel or other supplies) to or between ports in Puerto Rico as part of disaster relief efforts. NOSAC’s report states that many OSVs were prevented from completing such tasks due to “strict and sometimes conflicting interpretations of US Coast Guard regulations.” For example, although OSVs are allowed to transfer fuel offshore to mobile offshore drilling units or other offshore assets, US regulations generally prohibit an OSV from transferring fuel to near shore or to a shoreside facility, even when the fuel transfer would assist with disaster response. NOSAC’s report explains that strict enforcement of such regulations in times of state or national disaster impedes the use of capable assets that could otherwise be employed to assist in emergency relief.

NOSAC’s report aims to educate government agencies on the existing capabilities of OSVs to assist in streamlining disaster response and restoration. The report further seeks to expand the pool of US flag vessels that are authorized to participate in disaster response operations, while minimizing the need for Jones Act waivers for foreign-flag vessels. To that end, the report provides the US Coast Guard with industry recommendations on effecting policies that will allow efficient and expedited use of OSVs in the event of an officially declared disaster.

For example, the report recommends the creation of a formal communication protocol by which needs during disasters may be communicated between federal agencies and externally to industry participants to encourage coordinated efforts. The report further recommends a national policy that permits temporary berthing of emergency response personnel within a reasonable distance of the disaster location. The report also urges the US Coast Guard to clarify the definition of “international voyage” to explain that a US vessel is not on an international voyage when sailing from the contiguous US to Puerto Rico and/or the US Virgin Islands.           

In its most innovative recommendation, the report proposes a comprehensive policy on assessing and preapproving OSVs as disaster response resources. Specifically, the report recommends the creation of a “Response, Restoration, and Recovery” vessel (TRV) endorsement, which would be included on a vessel’s Certificate of Inspection and would allow the vessel to overcome operating restrictions if participating in relief efforts for an officially declared disaster. The report suggests following a tier-based response protocol, where properly certified vessels would be utilized first. If additional assets are needed, agencies could then look to TRV-endorsed vessels for use in the disaster response efforts.

The final report to the US Coast Guard embodies the groundbreaking efforts to streamline the use of US flag vessels in disaster relief. As stated in the report, “[T]he industry desires the opportunity to respond to such emergencies, not just for commercial gain but also as a result of its demonstrated and characteristic sense of obligation to the nation’s citizenry and interests.” Although now in the thick of hurricane season, the work of NOSAC and industry interests may bring new regulations for the upcoming year that allow an efficient and effective use of OSVs in disaster response.

[1] See Nat’l Offshore Safety Advisory Comm., Report and Recommendations (Sep. 11, 2019) https://homeport.uscg.mil/Lists/Content/Attachments/59642/RRATS Report-20190911 Rev D - DRAFT Final Report.pdf.

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About this Author

Jennifer David Jones Walker Maritime Practice Group Associate New Orleans

Jennifer advises clients in the maritime, construction, and insurance sectors. She focuses her practice on commercial litigation and has experience litigating surety bond and insurance coverage issues, indemnity obligations, construction disputes, and creditor rights in bankruptcy.