A legislative panel on Monday advanced a hotly contested proposal backed by the oil and petrochemical industries to rework the oversight of river pilots who guide ships up and down the Mississippi River, a bill that represents the latest power struggle between the pilots and industry.
The Louisiana Chemical Association and Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association are pushing House Bill 650, which would make a host of changes to the rules governing pilots. Among them: it would add businesspeople to the regulatory boards of the Crescent pilots and New Orleans Baton Rouge Steamship pilots, or NOBRA, two of the three main organizations of pilots working the lower Mississippi. Both boards are currently made up of three pilots.
The measure, and particularly that provision, drew heated backlash from the pilots, who testified Monday that HB650 was “dangerous” and would jeopardize safety on the river. Crescent pilots handle ships between Pilottown and New Orleans, and NOBRA handles the ships between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Those two groups are the main opponents of the bill.
The pilots on the Mississippi River make, on average, more than $500,000 a year, and some of the pilots have exceeded $700,000 in recent years. The rising fees have drawn scrutiny from the industries who pay for their service.
Commerce Chairwoman Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, said she would convene a meeting of industry groups, pilots and Pressly to discuss their differences in the coming days. The Commerce Committee advanced the bill without objection to the full House Monday, after multiple lawmakers told the pilots they think some reforms should be put into place.
The petrochemical industry has long battled with the river pilots who help steer ships up and down the Mississippi River, mostly over the larg…
“I think some reform is needed,” said Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, who complained about the lack of diversity in the river pilots’ ranks. “I think how that looks, reasonable minds can agree or disagree.”
Representatives for the Crescent and NOBRA pilots argued the bill would jeopardize safety by putting non-pilots on the board that investigates accidents and the like. They also acknowledged they have struggled to hire minorities and women, though they pointed to some modest progress recently.
“You wouldn’t want to put people on our board of examiners to train apprentice pilots or set rules or do investigations because they wouldn’t be qualified,” said Steve Hathorn, head of the NOBRA pilots association. “It would be like one of y’all coming to investigate a ship collision. It’s just not practical.”
Michael Bopp, president of the Crescent pilots association, said the bill would value “corporate profits over public safety.”
Proponents of the bill have negotiated with pilots to try to reach an agreement over the bill, and on Monday, Pressly agreed to an amendment to replace one of the industry members of the regulatory boards with a representative of the Coast Guard. That was aimed at addressing the complaints of pilots who said representatives of the oil or petrochemical industry could pressure pilots to make unsafe maneuvers to get their cargo to its destination sooner. If the bill passed in its current form, the boards would be composed of a pilot, a Coast Guard representative and a businessperson nominated by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc.
Tyler Gray, head of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, criticized the “nepotism within pilotage ranks,” and the outsized pay the pilots rake in. Many of the commissioned pilots are related to other pilots; the associations vote on which members to admit into their group.
“The operations of the Crescent and NOBRA pilots, including the regulation and establishment of new pilots, are governed by the members of the individual monopolies with little public input or transparency,” Gray said. The legislation would require the pilot groups to submit a list of pilots who are related to other pilots or public officials each year to lawmakers and the governor.
Industry groups were miffed last summer when the Crescent pilots asked for a significant pay hike, which would increase the average pilot's pay to $697,000 a year, depending on how much work they do. The chemical and oil and gas associations involved in the pilot legislation are fighting that request at the Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission.
Representatives for Crescent complained the industry groups are simply trying to use the legislation to gain leverage over the pay-hike request.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who benefitted from generous donations from pilots in his 2019 re-election bid, hasn’t taken a position on the bill, said spokesperson Christina Stephens, who cited the likelihood the legislation will change significantly before arriving at his desk.