US needs more polar icebreakers: Cantwell, Murkowski

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle PI

As a nation with a state partly in the Arctic, and research stations in the Antarctic, the United States urgently needs more icebreakers and is falling far behind Russia in its ability to navigate ice-choked waters, U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, argued in Seattle on Friday.

Cantwell and Murkowski staged an event on Harbor Island designed to send a message to the “other” Washington.

They want President Obama, in his 2017 budget proposal, to make good on his promise to get going on constructing a new U.S. icebreaker.  The promise was made late last summer, when Obama became the first U.S. president to travel above the Arctic Circle.

“Announcements are great, but now the president needs to actually walk the walk, and request the necessary funding from Congress,” said Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The U.S. Coast Guard has said it needs three heavy duty icebreakers and three medium vessels to fulfill its mission.  It currently has two 40-year-old heavy duty vessels and one medium.  And one of the heavy duty vessels, the Polar Sea, sits idle in Seattle awaiting a decision on whether it will be refurbished.

“The U.S. is falling farther and farther behind other countries,” said Cantwell, ranking Democrat on the energy committee.  “Russia has 40 operational icebreakers. Even China operates a polar icebreaker and it isn’t even an Arctic nation.”

In Scandinavia, Sweden has a fleet of six icebreakers, while Finland has seven.

The Murkowski-Cantwell collaboration is a bit unusual.  The two senators disagree on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Murkowski is for it; Cantwell wants the refuge off-limits to oil rigs and haul roads.

Cantwell has championed a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study on the impacts of a proposed mammoth copper and gold mine astride two of Bristol Bay’s premier salmon spawning rivers.  The EPA found the potential for devastating impacts on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.  Murkowski has criticized the study and claimed EPA went in with predetermined conclusions.

Despite the icy climate in Congress, and their disagreement on drilling and digging, the two strong-willed “gentle ladies” of the Senate — Cantwell and Murkowski — are together on this one:  America needs more icebreakers and Obama should break the ice.