Editorial: a U.S. presence in the Arctic

Seattle Times (Editorial) - Staff

CHANGING environmental and political conditions in the Arctic reinforce the need for the U.S. Coast Guard to have the equipment and vessels appropriate to the hazardous conditions.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, joined forces to secure passage of a Coast Guard authorization bill that maintains the nation’s capacity to deploy icebreakers to represent U.S. interests.

Melting polar ice caps are creating a new commercial and political dynamic, with the prospects of greater Arctic access as a trade route.

As a consequence, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea are seeking permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, which overseas policy issues in the region.

The U.S. barely has the capacity to maintain a presence in the Arctic or Antarctic, which makes the work done by Cantwell and Larsen so important.

Currently, the Coast Guard has one operational icebreaker, the Healy, a medium icebreaker primarily equipped for scientific research. The Coast Guard’s only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is near completion of an extensive overhaul at Vigor Industrial shipyard in Seattle.

The Coast Guard authorization bill also halts efforts to scrap the Seattle-based icebreaker Polar Sea, unless the Coast Guard can produce a study that shows how the action helps meet the need for additional icebreakers. A planned dismantling of the Polar Sea was halted earlier this year after the state’s congressional delegation interceded.

Both heavy-duty icebreakers would be kept in Seattle for the next 10 years under the legislation passed and sent to the White House.

Cantwell cites a Coast Guard study that concluded that six heavy-duty icebreakers and four medium icebreakers are needed to help meet Coast Guard and U.S. Navy mission requirements. The country is nowhere close. A new vessel can push $1 billion and take a decade to build.

Icebreakers represent a practical investment in the nation’s security and commercial interests.

Cantwell and Larsen prevented a dicey situation from getting worse.