Will 2021 Be the Year the United States Finally Sets Sail on Shipbuilding?

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Mar 15 2021 |
A ship in dry dock for needed repairs in at a shipyard in Newport News, Va. Nearly all of the shipbuilding that takes place today in the United States is for the U.S. Navy or for ships that confine their routes to the United States; most exports happen on foreign-made vessels. Photo by Getty Images

There’s bipartisan support for strengthening domestic shipbuilding, but previous legislation has stalled. Now the push for infrastructure investment may also help launch this effort.

We’ve written before about the Energizing American Shipbuilding Act, legislation that aims to reinvigorate the shipbuilding industry.

The premise behind the bill is simple: The United States is exporting a whole lot of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and crude oil, but we lack the U.S.-built, crewed and flagged vessels to transport it. That means that all of our LNG and crude oil exports are transported on foreign vessels.

It’s kind of embarrassing, right? It’s also leaving a whole lot of jobs on the table and frankly, weakening our national security.

The bipartisan bill seeks to address this by requiring that 15% of total seaborne LNG exports by 2043 and 10% of total seaborne crude oil exports by 2035 be transported on vessels built in the United States. While those percentages might still seem pretty low, the bill’s backers say this effort will kickstart a languishing industry, creating thousands of good jobs in American shipyards and leading to the construction of more than 40 ships.

“U.S. exports of America’s LNG and crude oil resources present a unique opportunity to create new middle-class jobs by strengthening our nation’s crucial domestic shipbuilding, advanced manufacturing, and maritime industries—which are key to national security and our ability to project American military power abroad,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who introduced the bicameral legislation with Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

“American shipyards and mariners are ready for the job, and our bill ensures American workers are no longer expected to compete against heavily subsidized shipyards in [South] Korea, China, and elsewhere.”

Other bill sponsors include Reps. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Ca.), Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) and Elaine Luria (D-Va.).

Despite its bipartisan support in both congressional chambers, previous iterations of the bill have stalled in past congressional sessions. But the bill’s sponsors are optimistic that the push for infrastructure investment will help their legislation as well.

When a bipartisan group of Members of Congress met with President Biden a few weeks ago to talk about infrastructure investment, the commander-in-chief brought up shipbuilding completely unprompted, signaling that there’s also support within the administration to increase America’s shipbuilding capabilities.

It’s a long time coming.

While the United States allowed its shipbuilding industry to decline – American workers made more than 75 commercial ships in 1975 alone – other countries have continued to heavily subsidize their shipbuilding industries to dominate the seas. South Korea now makes up around 37% of global ship construction, while Japan accounts for 27% and China makes up 21% (and rising).

Meanwhile, the shipbuilding still happening in the United States is focused on building warships for the U.S. Navy or for ships that confine their operations to routes within the United States.

But even that’s only because the Jones Act requires that all goods transported by water between ports be built in the United States and owned and crewed by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. That effort remains small, as the current U.S. merchant marine consists of about 175 vessels that are on average about 30 years old.

“America’s merchant fleet has dwindled 60 percent since 1991. Requiring LNG and oil to be exported on U.S.-built and crewed vessels will help strengthen our Nation’s shipyards and maritime industry and keep America competitive in international markets,” Casey said.

Added Wicker: Ensuring the U.S. can move our growing energy exports on American-flagged, American-crewed vessels protects the critical role these vessels play in our national defense and bolsters hundreds of thousands of American shipbuilding and maritime jobs. As foreign nations continue to invest heavily in their own shipbuilding capacity, the United States cannot allow our own capabilities to dwindle.”

You can find the text of the legislation here.