Cantwell’s Bipartisan Provision to Boost U.S. Icebreaking Capacity Clears Key Hurdle

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) today announced that her bipartisan provision aimed at strengthening the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet – which is based and serviced in Seattle – passed out of the Senate Committee on Commerce.

The provision, which is co-sponsored by Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Ala.), would authorize $150 million for the acquisition of a new heavy polar icebreaker, as well as require key studies and assessments to speed up the construction of new polar icebreakers needed to boost U.S. polar icebreaking capacity.

“It is critical the United States take steps to strengthen our icebreaking capacity – not only for the sake of our national security but to fully harness the economic opportunities that exist in the Polar Regions. This bill makes long overdue investments in the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaking fleet and ensures that those resources will be directed to best meet the needs of the Coast Guard, our economy and our national security,” said Cantwell, a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The amendment now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Below are key provisions of the amendment:

  • Authorizes $150 million toward acquisition of a new heavy polar icebreaker in Fiscal Year 2017.
  • Requires the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of the Navy, to develop a recapitalization 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 when the current icebreakers will need to be retired.
  • Identify any additional gaps in icebreaking capacity due to current and further delays in new icebreaker construction.
    • Requires the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study to analyze the gaps in icebreaking infrastructure in the U.S. fleet, and an analysis on how the current fleet does not meet mission requirements for the Coast Guard or the Navy. The study also requires an analysis of international funding models for icebreaker capacity.

Cantwell has been the Senate’s leading voice for strengthening our nation’s fleet of polar icebreakers and for refurbishing the Polar Sea, calling on the Administration in November to take the United States Arctic leadership to the next level. Earlier this year, Cantwell introduced legislation to authorize funding for the Coast Guard to refurbish Polar Sea — which has been sitting idle in Seattle’s Pier 36 pending government action. Additionally, Cantwell spearheaded a bipartisan letter calling for more robust funding for the Coast Guard in Fiscal Year 2017, and successfully urged President Obama to include funds in his fiscal year 2017 budget for a new icebreaker.

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.