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In the waters off Massachusetts, a hunt for foreign ships building wind farms

A domestic manufacturing group is eyeing Vineyard Wind for violations of the century-old Jones Act. Here’s why that matters for clean energy jobs in New England.

The Sea Installer is a Danish ship with legs that can anchor to the ocean floor and a massive crane that's used to install offshore wind turbines. The vessel is so specialized, there are few like it in the world.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

FORTY MILES SOUTH OF NEW BEDFORD — The waves grew choppier as a ship with a decidedly un-maritime name, the Jones Act Enforcer, pushed through the mist, on the hunt for scofflaws on the open ocean.

“It’s not here,” said Captain Rick Spaid. “The Sea Installer is supposed to be here.”

Crew and passengers grabbed for handholds as the 175-foot vessel pitched in the seas, trying to stay upright as they peered hard through the dense fog for any sign of the Sea Installer.

Aaron Smith, president and CEO of the Offshore Marine Service Association, surveyed a massive Danish vessel called the Sea Installer that is being used to erect offshore wind turbines off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A few minutes later, the Sea Installer appeared, a startling sight as it was jacked up above the ocean surface on four massive legs to allow it to serve as an enormous work station to install off-shore wind turbines.

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The goal, Spaid said, was to determine if the Danish vessel used foreign workers in violation of the century-old Jones Act, a federal law that requires ships carrying goods between two US points to be American-owned, American-built, and American crewed.

The quixotic quest of the Jones Act Enforcer is the work of the industry group Offshore Marine Service Association, or OMSA, and among its latest targets is the Vineyard Wind project, the country’s first major offshore commercial wind farm, located 13 miles west of Martha’s Vineyard, where work started this summer.

The marine association suspects many of the ships engaged in building the massive turbines, including the Danish-owned Sea Installer, might be violating the spirit, if not the actual language, of the Jones Act.

The law is supposed to protect American jobs, said OMSA president Aaron Smith. Instead, foreign-owned ships working in US waters are employing foreign workers, at lower wages than their US counterparts.

“We simply can not compete on cost,” Smith said. “These are opportunities that should be enjoyed by United States citizens.”

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These mini-skirmishes playing out in the waters off the Massachusetts coast have big implications for jobs in the state’s nascent offshore wind industry. They also underscore a high stakes drama pitting President Biden’s goals to create American jobs and fight climate change against the realities of standing up a clean energy industry using a supply chain that spans the globe.

A row of piles that will be the base for offshore wind turbines off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Inflation Reduction Act , passed a year ago, has infused billions of dollars into clean energy projects, and the Biden administration has touted the law as a way to create millions of American jobs in the process. But experts say the country lacks the necessary supply chain, including massive, highly specialized ships like the Sea Installer, to actually build what the law calls for.

In offshore wind, US ventures have turned to European companies for specialized vessels, equipment, and personnel — much to the chagrin of groups such as the offshore marine association, which say that, under the Jones Act, those jobs should go to American firms and workers.

Officially known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act was written after World War I to help build a strong American merchant marine fleet and backstop the Navy and Marines during times of war.

But a century later, critics say the Jones Act is protectionist and outdated, especially in a globalized economy. Requiring that only American ships carry cargo between US ports only drives up cost. It’s a key reason why liquid natural gas is shipped to New England from Europe, instead of from closer suppliers in the US Gulf Coast. And it complicates industries such as offshore wind, which are currently dominated by more experienced European companies.

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Yet despite several efforts to repeal the Jones Act, the law has prevailed and even enjoys the support of Biden, who casts himself as a champion of organized labor and high-paying American jobs in growing industries like clean energy.

The president touted the IRA at an event in Philadelphia in July to mark the construction of the Acadia, a US-made ship designed to help secure the base of offshore wind turbines to the seabed.

“There are some who are content to rely on ships built overseas, without American crews to operate them,” said Biden, citing his support for the Jones Act. “Again, not on my watch. We’re strengthening American shipbuilding, supporting good union jobs, and bringing offshore-wind supply chains back home.”

Unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration has embraced offshore wind as a potential major source of clean energy, and is greenlighting projects up and down the East Coast; Vineyard Wind is the first major one to launch construction. And the Inflation Reduction Act provides generous tax breaks to wind farms that begin construction before 2026, which analysts say is a good first step towards building a viable domestic wind power industry. But even with federal and state support, the economics have proven challenging.

The next Massachusetts offshore wind farms after Vineyard Wind — Commonwealth Wind and SouthCoast Wind — have both sought to terminate their electricity-supply contracts with utilities, citing significant increases in cost tied to inflation and supply chain challenges. The state will re-bid those contracts next year, but the delay is a sign that the United States does not yet have a cost effective supply chain to ramp up offshore wind, said Joseph Webster, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.

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A view from the ship named the Jones Act Enforcer of an offshore sub station and the wind turbine installation lift boat SEACOR Hawk on legs that go down to the sea bed floor. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“While extending production and investment incentives will provide an important (stimulus) for the US offshore wind industry, significant challenges remain,” Webster said. “The US currently lacks a significant civilian offshore wind maritime capacity, especially for wind turbine installation vehicles.”

To get Vineyard Wind done, developers are turning to vehicles such as the Sea Installer, which arrived in Salem in early August. Owned by the Danish firm DEME Group, the vessel is one of the few on the planet capable of installing GE Haliade-X wind turbines that are the size of a skyscraper into the ocean floor.

Measuring more than 430 feet in length and 150 feet wide, Sea Installer is a “jack up” vessel that lifts itself out of the water on legs more than 300 feet long. Once elevated, the vessel becomes a platform where an immense crane, capable of lifting more than 1,600 tons, can install the tower sections, nacelle, and blades for each turbine.

The Jones Act Enforcer does not board the suspected ships. Instead, as it did this day with the Sea Installer, the crew photographs the vessels from about half a nautical mile away and, if they suspect violations, files complaints with US Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard. The outcomes of the complaints are confidential, Smith said.

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From his vantage point, Smith acknowledged that the Sea Installer probably complies with most of the Jones Act.

The law prohibits foreign ships from transporting goods between two points within the US. But the actions that ships can and can’t take on American waters gets very technical.

For example, the Jones Act Enforcer observed Go Liberty, an American ship, perched beneath the Sea Installer. Smith said the American vessel was most likely transporting materials to the site so the Sea Installer could place a monopile — the bright yellow steel piles that support the turbines — into the ocean.

However, if the Sea Installer received material from the Go Liberty and then physically moved to another monopile in a different location, that act could violate the Jones Act.

Captain Rick Spaid piloted the Jones Act Enforcer out of New Bedford on a trip to survey offshore wind construction for potential violations of the Jones Act.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Jones Act Enforcer also observed the Italian ship Giulio Verne, which was working to connect underseas cables to an electric substation that would power the wind turbines. In this case, Smith claimed the Italian ship was violating the law because it was moving the cables from one point (the sea bed) to another point (the substation).

The developers of the wind farm denied its contractors were operating illegally.

“The Vineyard Wind Project complies with all US laws, including the Jones Act,” the wind farm developers said in a statement. “We fully support the US maritime and shipbuilding industry and encourage Congress to enact legislation to provide incentives for the construction of a robust fleet of vessels and mariner workforce training to support the nascent US offshore wind industry.”

Webster, of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, also said the country’s burdensome regulations hold back wind power. The country should consider repealing the Jones Act for key partners, such as NATO countries, or ease restrictions specifically for the wind industry, he said. Short of that, Webster said Congress should approve a massive expansion to the US Merchant Marine fleet so these ships can assist wind projects.

The Jones Act Enforcer will continue to conduct patrols in the North Atlantic until the fall and then return to its home in Louisiana, said Smith of the OMSA. There, the ship will keep an eye on offshore wind projects in the Gulf of Mexico. With so much money from the Inflation Reduction Act flowing into the offshore wind industry, someone needs to make sure American workers get their fair share, he said.

“When the Inflation Reduction Act passed, it included sizable tax credits for wind developers,” he said. “That’s great for them. But what they are doing is taking US taxpayer money and giving it to foreign nationals. That’s not what any of us thought we were getting with the law.”

The Italian vessel Giulio Verne laid cable to connect offshore wind turbines to substations to transfer power.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Thomas Lee can be reached at thomas.lee@globe.com.