Begich-Cantwell Bill Preserves Icebreaker Options

Legislation would save the Polar Sea from scrap heap, one of only two heavy duty icebreakers left in U.S. fleet critical to protecting national security, economic interests in the Arctic Refurbishing Seattle-based Coast Guard icebreaking vessel could save taxpayer dollars, bring jobs to WA state

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Citing the need for increased American icebreaking capacity for both national security and marine commerce, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) introduced legislation to prevent the decommissioning and scrapping of the Coast Guard heavy duty icebreaker Polar Sea

The Begich-Cantwell legislation, Preserve Our Large Arctic Response Capability (POLAR-C ) Act of 2011, requires the release of the Coast Guard’s business case analysis of icebreaker needs required by last year’s Coast Guard authorization, and prevents the decommissioning and scrapping of the Seattle-based Polar Sea. 

“Before the U.S. Coast Guard spends scarce taxpayer dollars to decommission one of our nation’s two remaining heavy duty icebreakers, we must know that it is the most fiscally prudent way forward,” said Sen. Cantwell, member and former chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard. “We may be able to save taxpayer dollars and improve national security by refurbishing existing vessels, instead of scrapping them. Legislation we authored in 2010 requires the Coast Guard evaluate the most cost-effective way to revitalize its aging icebreaker fleet. Until those results are reviewed by Congress, I cannot support the Coast Guard moving forward with decommissioning of the Polar Sea.”

“At a time we are seeing unprecedented interest in the Arctic for energy development and marine transportation, our nation cannot afford to dispose of a valuable asset such as the Polar Sea,” Sen.Begich said, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard. “With only one currently operational icebreaker, the recent High Latitude study found a major shortfall in our nation’s ability to operate in the rapidly changing Arctic and it makes no sense to decommission and scrap a perfectly serviceable vessel.”

Decommissioning Polar Sea would leave the U.S. with only one operational icebreaker, the Healy, which was designed primarily as a scientific research vessel and only has medium icebreaking capability. The second heavy duty icebreaker, Polar Star, is currently in Seattle being refitted after years in ‘caretaker’ status, when the vessel is out of active service but still receives routine upkeep and maintenance. The United States Navy has no icebreaking capability.

The Coast Guard needs a minimum of six heavy duty icebreakers and an additional four medium icebreakers to meet Coast Guard and Navy mission requirements, according to a recent Coast Guard study. Begich and Cantwell wrote USCG Commandant Admiral Robert Papp last month saying the lack of icebreaking capacity was unacceptable:

“While the Polar Sea has served beyond its expected service life and recently suffered engine failure, we also understand from Coast Guard and private sector engineers that the hull of the Polar Sea is still sound and may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. We think it is premature to scrap this potentially valuable asset. Rebuilding the vessel based on that hull would be considerably less costly than building a replacement vessel from the keel up.”

Papp responded that based on the Coast Guard’s preliminary analysis, the Coast Guard preferred building a new icebreaker. But with no clear plan to fund or construct a replacement to meet the nation’s icebreaker needs, Begich and Cantwell introduced their POLAR-C legislation last night to release that analysis and retain the Polar Sea in the meantime.

Cantwell was instrumental in securing the analysis requirement, due to Congress by October 15, in the last year’s Coast Guard Reauthorization Act. Cantwell’s provision required the Coast Guard to evaluate the costs and benefits of building new vessels versus refurbishing the existing vessels, which could save taxpayer dollars. Both scenarios would bring hundreds of jobs to the Puget Sound area. Refurbishing an icebreaking vessel can take roughly five years and employ upwards of 300 workers. Rebuilding the vessel can take roughly eight years and employ more than 1,000 workers.

Seattle-based Vigor Shipyards (formerly Todd Shipyards Corp.) currently has a multiyear, multimillion dollar contract with the Coast Guard for upgrade work on the Polar Sea’s sister ship, the Polar Star icebreaker. Both Polar Star and Polar Sea were commissioned in 1977 and built in Seattle by Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company, which was purchased by Lockheed in 1959.

The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, opening new passageways through the Arctic ice, which creates national security, law enforcement and maritime safety concerns. Additionally, emerging environmental protection concerns, potential resource development and scientific research critical to understanding global climate change require vessels capable of polar operations. Historically, these vessels have also helped resupply the McMurdo Station, the main U.S. station in Antarctica on the southern tip of Ross Island in Antarctica, but over the last few years the U.S. has been forced to contract foreign icebreaking to fulfill this national need.