Obama wants new icebreaker

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle PI

President Obama has asked Congress to fast-track construction of a new, heavy-duty polar class icebreaker to assure year-round accessibility to the Arctic.

The icebreaker is expected to cost about $1 billion. In its 2017 budget proposal to Congress, the Obama administration has asked for $150 million to "complete all planning and design activities necessary to begin production activities by 2020.

"Building new polar icebreakers is critical to our long-term leadership and economic vitality in the Arctic region: With other countries upgrading their presence in the Arctic, we need new vessels," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

It's an understatement. Russia has about 40 icebreakers and is building more. Even China operates a polar icebreaker and it isn't an Arctic nation.

By contrast, the U.S. has just two heavy-duty and one medium icebreaker. They are based in Seattle.

The two polar class icebreakers are more than 40 years old.  One of them, the Polar Sea, has been laid up at a Harbor Island shipyard since 2010 while its repair is debated.

President Obama promised a new polar-class icebreaker last September during a visit to Alaska's Resurrection Bay near Seward.

"The new, heavy icebreaker will assure year-round accessibility to the Arctic region for Coast Guard missions including protection of Alaska's maritime environment and resources," the White House said in a statement.

Cantwell and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have urged the president, in Murkowski's words, to "walk the walk" on getting construction of the vessel underway. Murkowski is chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Cantwell is ranking Democrat.

"This is a positive step in the right direction and I hope that the president continues to make this a priority to meet his self-imposed deadline of starting construction by 2020," said Murkowski.

The Coast Guard's last heavy-duty icebreakers were built in Seattle.

Obama has taken away lessons from a three-day, late summer trip in which he became the first U.S. President to cross above the Arctic Circle.

He is proposing to spend $400 million over 10 years to help relocation of Alaska Native villages threatened by rising seas, coastal erosion and storm surges.

"The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and is experiencing the consequences," said a White House statement. "Higher average temperatures are diminishing the range of winter sea ice, allowing heavy storm surges to batter the Alaska coastline . . ."

One member of Alaska's congressional delegation, crusty Republican Rep. Don Young, has openly doubted that humans are warming the earth and rudely treated an Alaska Native girl who tried to explain at a hearing its impacts on her village.