2 parties' icebreaker plans on collision course

WASHINGTON — For a pair of battered ships that in recent years have mostly sat docked in Seattle, the Coast Guard's heavy-duty icebreakers are facing roiling waters in Congress.

The Coast Guard wants to mothball the hobbled Polar Sea and scavenge the 33-year-old vessel for parts for its sister ship, the Polar Star.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., opposes the move. Last week, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed a two-year Coast Guard authorization bill that included an amendment co-sponsored by Cantwell barring the service from decommissioning the Polar Sea.

But over in the House, Republicans are pushing for the exact opposite: They want the Coast Guard to permanently mothball the Polar Sea in six months, and to decommission the Polar Star — now undergoing a $57 million overhaul near West Seattle — in three years. That measure passed a House committee in September and was scheduled for consideration by the full House on Friday before being postponed.

And on Thursday, the White House issued a statement that it "strongly opposes" the House version of the reauthorization bill on grounds that it would prematurely yank the Polar Star from service and "create a significant gap in the nation's icebreaking capability."

The legislative tussle is playing out as warming climates are opening up frozen regions to increased exploration just as the nation's two biggest icebreakers are past their original life spans. Experts say the thinning ice will increase demand for icebreakers as more people flock to the hazardous polar environs.

House Republicans are using the threat of decommissioning in an effort to push the Coast Guard and the administration to articulate its Arctic mission and just how large an icebreaker fleet is needed. Out of the Coast Guard's three general-purpose icebreakers, all based in Seattle, only the medium-duty Healy is currently operating.

The 399-foot Polar Sea was refurbished in 2006, only to be crippled by engine failure last year. The rehabbed Polar Star, the Polar Sea's twin, is slated to return to service in 2013 with hopes of squeezing an additional seven to 10 years of use out of it.

"These icebreakers have not been in regular service since 2006, but we have been spending tens of millions of dollars every year just to keep them tied to the dock," said Justin Harclerode, Republican spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Just last month, Congress received an independent analysis of whether the Coast Guard should build new icebreakers or keep going with its two aged vessels. The report has not been made public.

Rep. Rick Larsen, of Lake Stevens, the top Democrat on the House transportation panel's Coast Guard subcommittee, said it would be unwise to order the two icebreakers decommissioned before concluding a definitive study about how the United States can best maintain economic and scientific presence in the polar regions. Larsen has scheduled a hearing on Dec. 1 titled "Protecting U.S. Sovereignty: Coast Guard Operations in the Arctic."

Earlier, Larsen withdrew an amendment to block the decommissioning provision after Republicans agreed to address his concerns before the bill went up for a floor vote. But Larsen said he "couldn't convince the Republican majority" to drop the language.

The full House is expected to consider the bill after it returns from recess next week. Passage likely will put it on collision course with the Senate's Coast Guard reauthorization bill.

Larsen said he will work hard to "see the Senate version prevail."

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com