WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

‘Goldilocks’ Regulations Require Close Relationships

In what the American Waterways Operators called a “commonsense, deregulatory win for towing vessels and mariners,” the Coast Guard issued a final rule May 27 that allows a mariner to serve as a Person In Charge (PIC) of fuel oil transfers in inspected vessels using either a Merchant Mariner Credential with Tankerman-PIC endorsement or a company-provided Letter of Designation stating that the holder has sufficient formal instruction to carry out those transfer duties. AWO estimates that this ruling could save the industry between $265 million and $370 million over a 10-year period.

A rule adjustment like this sounds like a simple matter, and in some ways it is. But the process of getting there was far from simple. The towing industry has been working on this issue since 2011, when the PIC rule was first proposed in anticipation of vessels transitioning from “uninspected” to “inspected” status. Despite many informal conversations between industry representatives and the Coast Guard, the latter decided in 2016 not to allow letters of designation. It’s impossible to estimate how many person-hours of contact have been spent on this issue, and on conversations between the Coast Guard and industry representatives, but the number is likely substantial.

It’s important to note that the Coast Guard never framed this PIC issue as a matter of safety. To them, at least initially, it was simply a matter of documentation. It took several years of the marine industry demonstrating and documenting the added costs and burdens of having employees get tankerman endorsements that finally persuaded the Coast Guard to change its mind. When it did, though, it decided to allow the letters for all vessels, not just towing vessels. So passenger vessels can now also issue letters of designation to their persons in charge, instead of having to require them to get the Tankerman-PIC endorsement.

This is an example of a proposed regulation that would have added costs and burdens to the regulated industry, without delivering any benefits either to safety or efficiency. Another example is a recent AWO win when it persuaded the Coast Guard not to require radar refresher training. This would have misaligned the expiration dates of the various endorsements on the Merchant Mariner Credential, which the Coast Guard normally prefers to consolidate. More importantly, it would have been another case of imposing burdens for no benefit, since wheelhouse mariners work with radar every day.

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Efforts to ease unnecessary or burdensome regulations have been aided by President Donald Trump’s deregulatory push. But our industry doesn’t oppose all regulation. Far from it. The AWO, and the barge industry as a whole, have always recognized that there is an important role for responsible regulation. The AWO’s Responsible Carrier Program self-regulated the industry in ways that anticipated and helped shape the Subchapter M regulations. Nor is it always the case that regulations that don’t fit are imposed in bad faith. It’s more a question of educating the regulators on the operating conditions of the industry, with which many of them are not familiar. They may be genuinely unaware, until shown, that a particular regulation imposes onerous burdens.

That’s where the close relationships fostered day in and day out between industry representatives—in the AWO but also in the various advisory committees and other bodies—pay off and deliver benefits for the industry. It’s not a question of more regulation or less regulation, but of the “just right” regulations: rules that make sense, can be complied with, don’t impose needless burdens and deliver genuine benefits.