Cantwell Cosponsors Bill to Refurbish Seattle-based Icebreaker, Enhance Coast Guard Oil Spill Readiness

Begich/Cantwell legislation would bolster Coast Guard fleet

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) announced that she’s cosponsoring legislation with Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) that would modernize the U.S. Coast Guard’s fleet with state-of-the-art cutters and aircraft and bolster the nation’s icebreaking capabilities by refurbishing the Seattle-based Polar Sea icebreaker.

The bipartisan Coast Guard Authorization Act (CGAA), introduced last week by Begich, would authorize the Coast Guard to overhaul the heavy icebreaker Polar Sea -- now idle at Seattle’s Pier 36 -- and return it to service. The Coast Guard had tried to scrap the 36-year-old Polar Sea in previous years. Senator Cantwell and Senator Begich previously have introduced legislation to save the Polar Sea because the ship’s specialized hull is in excellent condition. Without the Polar Sea, the United States only has two operational polar icebreakers: the Polar Star and the Healy.

“This bill ensures the Coast Guard has the tools it needs to protect our economic interests in the Arctic and better prepare to respond to oil spills, which is an increasing concern in the Northwest,” said Cantwell, who serves on the Senate subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard. “This bill would also be good news for jobs in Washington state. Refurbishing a large icebreaking vessel like the Polar Sea can mean hundreds of Washington shipbuilding jobs. The Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet also needs new vessels, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to get that accomplished.”

“We owe it to the men and women of the Coast Guard and their families to make sure the Service has enough resources to do everything that we ask and expect,” Begich said. “As Chairman of the Senate Oceans Subcommittee, I will continue to do everything I can to keep the Coast Guard strong and agile, so they can live up to their motto of being ‘Always Ready’ in Alaska and around the country.”

The bill combines parts of legislation that Begich and Cantwell previously cosponsored, including the Coast Guard Arctic Preparedness Act, which was introduced earlier in 2014, and the Coast Guard Quality of Life Act, which was introduced last year. Overall, the CGAA (S. 2444) would authorize $8.72 billion for the Coast Guard for 2015 and 2016. That includes just under $7 billion each year for Coast Guard operating expenses and roughly $1.5 billion each year for the Coast Guard’s ongoing replacement program.

The CGAA also would enhance the Coast Guard’s prevention and response capabilities in the Arctic and establish services to improve the quality of life for Coast Guard personnel and their families. The bill would:


  • Specify that the Coast Guard’s mission includes icebreaking and extend service of the Polar Sea, the second of the Nation’s only two heavy polar icebreakers. 


  • Enhance vessel safety regarding ice and weather conditions, and require that oil spill response plans developed by offshore oil and gas companies are updated every five years.


  • Create educational and portable career opportunities for active duty Coast Guard spouses, and ease the transition of Coast Guard personnel into post-service life.  


  • Increase competition in the design and construction of new heavy icebreakers.

In April, Admiral Paul Zukunft, now the new Coast Guard Commandant, told Cantwell during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that increased shipping of tar sands oil is a concern, and that there is a lack of adequate technology to handle a large-scale tar sands oil spill in Northwest waterways. Zukunft also acknowledged the United States is lagging behind other Arctic nations in developing and maintaining polar icebreaking capabilities. 

The Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet is based and serviced in Seattle. In 2012, Congress passed legislation with an amendment sponsored by Cantwell that saved the Polar Sea from the scrapyard. Cantwell and U.S. Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA-02) have repeatedly made the case for strengthening the nation’s fleet of polar icebreakers and for protecting the Polar Sea.

The melting polar ice cap has opened new passageways through the Arctic ice and created new opportunities for trade and international commerce. Emerging resource development in the Arctic is also bringing up additional environmental concerns and increasing the importance of vessels capable of operating in sea ice. Icebreakers are also key for scientific research critical to understanding global climate change.

The legislation also is cosponsored by Senators John D. Rockefeller III (D-WV), John Thune (R-SD) and Marco Rubio (R-FL).