Cantwell: Icebreakers Crucial to U.S. Arctic Strategy

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) heard from witnesses, including the former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, who said that increasing the U.S. icebreaker fleet is crucial to the United States.

Cantwell, ranking member of the Committee, and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the Committee Chairwoman, led a hearing on U.S. strategy in the Arctic. As polar ice caps continue to melt, the United States will be faced with challenges and opportunities in a rapidly changing Arctic. Much of this activity will require investment in Arctic capabilities, research and infrastructure. Cantwell has championed efforts to increase the icebreaker fleet, which is based in Seattle.

“As climate continues to change, the economic importance of the Arctic will only continue to grow in the years ahead,” Cantwell said during the hearing. “Our Coast Guard needs the tools and infrastructure required to operate in the Arctic, which means developing a polar icebreaking fleet. It’s very important that as we discuss our Arctic strategy, the United States understands it needs to make an investment in icebreakers.”

The hearing was scheduled just before the United States assumes a two-year chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council, which addresses environmental and resource issues faced by member nations.

“The United States’ Arctic strategy is tremendously important to the economy in both Washington and Alaska,” Cantwell said. “We must make strategic investments in Arctic science, which will not only help us understand the impacts of climate change on Arctic communities, but will also help better inform our strategy for dealing with everything from rescue operations to potential oil spills.”

Thursday’s hearing coincided with a new report from the Center for American Progress that finds icebreakers are essential to Arctic strategy: “Without decisive action to fund and build new heavy icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard, the United States puts its environment and national security in harm’s way,” according to the report.

“You can trace the history of this country back to the Federalist Papers talking about the need for maritime safety and security for prosperity of this country,” said Admiral Robert Papp, the U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic and former Commandant of the Coast Guard, during the hearing. “You can get wrapped around the axle saying do we need six (icebreakers), do we need three and three, or four and two? Whatever it may be, there’s a least a need for one and we haven’t even started on the one yet.”

According to a recent study, the U.S. Coast Guard needs a minimum of six heavy duty icebreakers and an additional four medium icebreakers to meet Coast Guard and Navy mission requirements. Currently, the Coast Guard has only two operational icebreakers – the Polar Star and the Healy. The Healy is a medium icebreaker and research vessel. The U.S. Navy has no icebreaking capability.

“Icebreaking is the lowest hanging fruit for the U.S. to jump into Arctic assistance and Arctic development,” said Patrick Arnold, Director of Operations and Business Development for the Maine Port Authority. “Without this capability, the U.S. does not have the opportunity to lead in a meaningful way regarding the support of future trade lanes or natural resource opportunities, or contributing to search and rescue commitments.”

The U.S. is lagging behind other Arctic nations such as Russia in developing and maintaining polar icebreakers. Russia currently operates 29 icebreakers and has 8 more in construction.

In 2014, Cantwell cosponsored legislation that would have authorized the Coast Guard to overhaul the heavy icebreaker Polar Sea, now idle at Seattle’s Pier 36, and return it to service.  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.

Building a new vessel can take eight to ten years and employ more than 1,000 workers. Refurbishing a large icebreaking vessel like the Polar Star can take roughly five years and employ upwards of 300 workers.

Cantwell pointed to the Polar Star’s recent mission to rescue a commercial fishing vessel that got stuck in Antarctic ice. The Polar Star traveled 860 miles and broke through 150 miles of thick Antarctic ice to rescue 26 people.

“The Coast Guard already is spread too thin. While I am proud of our Coast Guard – especially this crew that calls Seattle home – I am concerned that we have only one heavy icebreaker,” Cantwell said. “What if the Polar Star, too, had been stuck? As the current Commandant Admiral Zukunft said in his state of the Coast Guard address last week, ‘there is no one to rescue the rescuer.’