In Seattle, Cantwell, Larsen Urge House to Save Polar Sea Icebreaker

Icebreaker docked in Seattle could be scrapped after 2012 unless Congress acts

SEATTLE, WA – Today at Vigor Shipyards, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and U.S. Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA-02) called on the U.S. Congress to preserve the nation’s only operational heavy duty icebreaker, the Polar Sea. Unless Congress acts, the Polar Sea is scheduled to be dismantled in 2013.

Cantwell and Larsen are urging the House to adopt language on a critical Coast Guard bill that would postpone the decommissioning of the Polar Sea icebreaker until a new heavy duty icebreaker is built. The Coast Guard Reauthorization Act for Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013 (HR 2838) passed the Senate by unanimous consent on September 22 and the House in late 2011. The Senate version  includes a Cantwell-written amendment that would postpone the decommissioning of the Polar Sea icebreaker until a new heavy duty icebreaker is built.

The Polar Sea is currently docked in Seattle and is scheduled to be dismantled in 2013. Scrapping the Polar Sea would leave the United States with only one operational icebreaker, the Healy, which only has medium icebreaking capability. Vigor Shipyards is currently refitting the nation’s second heavy duty icebreaker, the Polar Star, which has spent years in ‘caretaker’ status.

“Icebreakers protect America’s interest in the Arctic and support shipbuilding jobs in Washington state,” Cantwell said. “The need for icebreakers grows every year, and we need to keep the icebreaker Polar Sea at sea where it belongs. Representative Larsen and I will continue to work to protect our fleet of icebreakers and the jobs that depend on them.”

“The Arctic will be the Northwest Passage of the 21st century, and the United States needs icebreakers to secure our interests in the region,” said Larsen, Ranking Member of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee. “Maintaining an icebreaker fleet protects American commerce and our national security, and creates hundreds of jobs right here in the Puget Sound. We should not cede this region to international competitors. Sen. Cantwell and I are working hard to make sure Congress passes this bill to protect American icebreakers and American jobs.”

Cantwell has been the leading advocate in the Senate for the nation’s icebreakers while the Administration and Congress consider all options to fulfill the nation’s growing need for them. In June, she worked with Senators Mark Begich (D-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to secure an agreement with the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard to postpone the scheduled June dismantling of the Polar Sea through the end of 2012.

Larsen has led efforts in the House of Representatives to protect the icebreaker fleet. As the ranking Democrat on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, Larsen has convened hearings and authored legislation to protect the icebreakers. He is currently negotiating with Congressional leaders to pass language protecting icebreakers in the House.

The Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet is based and serviced in Seattle. Refurbishing a large icebreaking vessel like the Polar Star can take roughly five years and employ upwards of 300 workers. Building a new vessel can take eight years to ten years and employ more than 1,000 workers.

The melting polar ice caps have 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. Historically, these vessels have also helped resupply the McMurdo Station, the main U.S. station in Antarctica on the southern tip of Ross Island. However over the last few years the United States has been forced to contract foreign icebreaking to deliver supplies to the station.

Cantwell, a member and former chair of the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee, played a leading role in authoring the last Coast Guard Reauthorization, which became law in October 2010.