1/15/15 12:17 PM EST
The commandant of the Coast Guard waded into the congressional fight over the Jones Act on Thursday, arguing that repealing it would jeopardize the U.S. fleet of trade vessels.

“That for me is a real consequence, if we have foreign flagged vessels doing coastalized trade, what are the safety standards, what are the maritime pollution … standards, how are they in compliance with the same standards that we apply to our U.S. fleet?” Adm. Paul Zukunft said at the Surface Navy Association’s National Symposium in Crystal City, Va.

“I think, at the end of the day, it will put our entire U.S. fleet in jeopardy, where our fleet of roughly 80-plus international U.S.-flagged vessels will rapidly go to zero,” he said. “And then in a time of crisis, who are we going to charter to carry out our logistics? … Very difficult if we don’t have a U.S. flagged ship.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is seeking to attach an amendment to the Senate’s Keystone XL pipeline legislation that would repeal the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act, which requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by vessels built in the country and owned and operated by Americans.

The new Senate Armed Services chairman argued the policy is “antiquated,” and raises costs for U.S. consumers by placing unnecessary restrictions on trade vessels.

Zukunft didn’t hesitate to list what he viewed as negative consequences of repealing the policy, but he said he didn’t want to get in the middle of the congressional fight.

“We deal with the consequences of how these policies play out, and I’ve found it very prudent to just deal with the consequence and not find myself the salami between those two slices of bread on these policy decisions,” he said.

There are a number of stakeholders in the Jones Act battle, but first and foremost is the U.S. shipbuilding industry, Zukunft said.

Shipbuilding advocates are fighting back against McCain’s push, including the Navy League, which argued that repealing the Jones Act would lead to a reduction in the number of ships built in U.S. shipyards. The Navy League also said repealing the law would lead to increased costs for Navy and Coast Guard vessels, which are built in the United States where the trade protections mean shipyards have lower overhead costs.

There are now about 15 tanker ships under construction that will be U.S. flagged ships, increasing the fleet size by more than 20 percent, he said. And much of that increase is due to demand for U.S. export ships, which would decrease if the Jones Act is repealed, he said.