Cantwell, Sullivan & Murray Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Strengthen U.S. Icebreaking Capacity

'If we don’t act now, we jeopardize our national security, and America’s opportunity for economic growth in the Polar Regions'

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Patty Murray (D-WA) today introduced the bipartisan Coast Guard Icebreaker Recapitalization Act, a bill that aims to strengthen the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet — which is based and serviced in Seattle — to better operate in the Polar regions.  

The legislation would authorize $150 million for the Coast Guard to refurbish Polar Sea — which has been sitting idle in Seattle’s Pier 36 pending government action — as well as require key studies and assessments to speed up and increase U.S. polar icebreaking capacity.

Icebreakers are critical to job creation and economic activity in the Pacific Northwest, helping facilitate shipping, tourism, fishing and other industries in the Arctic. Refurbishing a large icebreaking vessel like the Polar Sea can employ upwards of 300 workers and bring millions in economic activity to the region. A 2015 report by the McDowell Group found that in the Puget Sound region, Alaska-related commerce fueled 113,000 jobs and $6.2 billion in earnings.

“The United States is already behind in our icebreaking capacity. If we don’t act now, we jeopardize our national security, and America’s opportunity for economic growth in the Polar Regions and the Pacific Northwest. This bill strengthens the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaking capacity by investing in the Polar Sea, and requiring the Department of Homeland Security to develop a plan to meet Coast Guard mission requirements in the Arctic,” said Cantwell.

“Investing in the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaker fleet is critically important to maritime commerce, national security, scientific research, and basic ocean-going safety,” Senator Murray said. “I’m proud to keep working to make sure our region and our country have the resources they need to protect our national interests.”

Below are key provisions of the Coast Guard Icebreaker Recapitalization Act:

  • Authorize $150 million for the Coast Guard to refurbish Polar Sea.
  • Require the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of the Navy, to develop a plan to meet the Coast Guard statutory missions in the Polar Regions. That plan must:
    • Identify the vessel specifications, capabilities, equipment, and other needs required for the next generation of heavy polar icebreakers.
    • List the specific appropriations required for the acquisition of each icebreaker, for each fiscal year, until the fleet is fully capable of meeting the needs of the U.S. Coast Guard.
    • Describe any polar icebreaking capacity gaps that may arise based on the current fleet and current procurement schedule.
    • Identify any additional gaps in icebreaking capacity due to current and further delays in new icebreaker construction.
  • Requires a Government Accountability Office study on international funding models for government icebreaking services.

Cantwell has been the Senate’s leading voice for strengthening our nation’s fleet of polar icebreakers and for refurbishing the Polar Sea. Earlier this year, Cantwell successfully urgedPresident Obama to include funds in his fiscal year 2017 budget for a new icebreaker in an effort to address America’s woefully inadequate and aging fleet. Additionally, Cantwell called on the Administration in November to take the United States Arctic leadership to the next level, including funding of new icebreakers and refurbishing the Polar Sea.

The U.S. currently has only three polar icebreakers — two heavy and one medium. Numerous studies have highlighted inadequacies in the U.S.’ icebreaking fleet and confirmed that the Coast Guard requires a minimum of three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its missions. By contrast, Russia has 40 operational icebreakers while Sweden and Finland operate six and seven icebreakers, respectively. China, while not an Arctic nation, has growing interest in the opening of Arctic sea lanes and has invested $300 million for their second heavy icebreaker.