Feds waive Jones Act amid fuel shortages in Northeast

In a bid to get oil flowing to the storm-ravaged Northeast, where motorists have been waiting in hours-long lines to pump gasoline, the Obama administration on Friday relaxed a rule that normally blocks foreign tankers from carrying crude.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a temporary, blanket waiver of the so-called Jones Act, which requires vessels carrying products between American ports to be built in the United States and crewed mostly by U.S. citizens.

The move would allow additional oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico to swiftly enter Northeastern port and came after requests from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The waiver would allow an influx of foreign-flagged tankers coming from the Gulf to Northeast ports and petroleum terminals that still may be inaccessible in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

It wasn’t certain how much difference the Obama administration’s move would make, given that reports indicate plenty of fuel is sitting in storage tanks and tankers already — but it is inaccessible because of terminal damage and power outages at filling stations.

Electricity outages, flooding and other damage caused by Sandy have disrupted the flow of fuel to filling stations across the Northeast, spurring drivers and pedestrians wielding gas cans to wait in long lines for the stuff. Electric outages at filling stations and tanker traffic limitations are blamed for some of the fuel shortage.

According to Department of Energy data, 14 petroleum terminals were still offline as of Friday morning; 22 other terminals in states affected by the super storm were operating.

Some of the petroleum facilities could be offline for a while. Motiva reported that four diesel oil storage tanks were damaged at its Sewaren, N.J. terminal.

Two of the six refineries in the path of Sandy remained shut down on Friday: Hess’ facility in Port Reading, N.J., and the Phillips 66 plant in Linden, N.J. A Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia was operating with reduced runs.

On Thursday, Colonial Pipeline restarted a large section of the Northeast petroleum mainline that had been shut down on Oct. 29, with the firm expecting it to send deliveries to Linden on Friday. According to the Energy Department, the company’s Linden facility, which itself is operating on portable generators while power slowly comes back on, resumed deliveries to Buckeye Pipeline on Thursday.

Although many Northeast residents have been lining up at filling stations to keep their cars fed with fuel, others without electricity have been buying gasoline for generators to keep lights on at home.

Tensions spilled over at one station on Thursday, when a Queens, N.Y., resident pointed a gun at another motorist after trying to cut in line at a gas station, according to reports.