Senate Passes Cantwell Provision to Prevent Scrapping of Polar Sea Icebreaker

Icebreaker docked in Seattle could be scrapped after 2012; Cantwell measure would protect it until a new vessel is built

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, key provisions championed by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) passed the Senate as part of the Coast Guard Authorization bill. The bill includes a Cantwell-written measure that would postpone the decommissioning of the Polar Sea icebreaker currently docked in Seattle until a new icebreaker is built.

The Coast Guard Reauthorization Act for Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013 (HR 2838) – which passed the Senate by unanimous consent – also includes a Cantwell amendment that would require the Coast Guard to conduct an assessment of the risk to Washington state waters by potential Canadian supertankers carrying tar sands oil. The tar sands study and risk analysis would need to be completed within 180 days of the bill becoming law.

The Coast Guard bill now heads to the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Icebreaking capacity is a matter of national security, and is vital to America’s interests in the Arctic,” Cantwell said. “This bill is a major step forward to strengthen America’s icebreaking fleet and support maritime jobs in the Puget Sound. The Senate Coast Guard bill preserves the option of refurbishing the Polar Sea, as America determines the most cost-effective way to meet our mission requirements for icebreakers.”

The Polar Sea had been scheduled to be dry-docked and dismantled in June. However, Cantwell and Senators Mark Begich (D-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) secured an agreement just days before with the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Robert Papp, Jr., to postpone the scheduled scrapping through the end of 2012.

Cantwell’s measure that passed the Senate today would postpone the scrapping of the Polar Sea until it can be replaced by a new heavy duty icebreaker. The United States Coast Guard must have a plan in place to rebuild the nation’s icebreaker fleet before decommissioning scarce assets critical to Polar operations.

Scrapping Polar Sea would leave the United States with only one operational icebreaker, the Healy, which was designed primarily as a scientific research vessel and only has medium icebreaking capability. Homeported in Seattle, the Polar Sea is the only heavy duty icebreaker in commission in the U.S. fleet. The second heavy duty icebreaker, Polar Star, is currently in Seattle being refitted after years of receiving routine maintenance in ‘caretaker’ status.

The Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet is based and serviced in Seattle; maintenance, construction and service life extensions of polar icebreakers support area jobs. Refurbishing a large icebreaking vessel like the Polar Sea can take roughly five years and employ upwards of 300 workers. Rebuilding the vessel can take roughly eight years and employ more than 1,000 workers.

The Coast Guard needs a minimum of six heavy duty icebreakers and an additional four medium icebreakers to meet Coast Guard and Navy mission requirements, according to a recent Coast Guard study. The United States Navy currently has no icebreaking capability.


The Coast Guard bill passed today by the Senate also includes Cantwell’s amendment requiring an analysis of the threat of a Salish Sea oil spill due to increasing Canadian oil supertanker traffic. The amendment directs the Coast Guard to complete a risk analysis that includes recommendations for managing and minimizing the potential increases in supertanker, tanker and barge traffic exporting Canadian tar sands oil.

 The Coast Guard study would include:

  • An analysis of how much vessel traffic will increase in the Salish Sea – the Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia, Haro Strait, Rosario Strait, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca -- due to Canadian tar sands development;
    • An assessment of whether transportation of tar sands would require navigation through American waters, and which rules and regulations apply to supertankers in U.S. compared to Canadian waters;
    • Oil spill response capability in shared waters in the Pacific Northwest;
    • Tools and technology needed to clean up tar sands oil in the event of a spill;
    • The potential costs and benefits to the American public of maritime transportation of Canadian tar sands oil.

“A supertanker oil spill near our shores would threaten Washington state’s thriving coastal economy and thousands of jobs,” said Cantwell. “We cannot risk a tar sands oil spill in the fragile waters of the Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia, or the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This bill would provide crucial information for Washington coastal communities, by requiring a detailed risk analysis within 180 days.”

According to reports, Canada is poised to increase oil tanker traffic through the waters around the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca by up to 300 percent.

An oil spill in waters in Washington state interior waterways could be devastating. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, a major spill would have a significant impact on Washington state’s coastal economy, which employs 165,000 people and generates $10.8 billion in annual economic activity. A spill would also severely hurt the state’s export dependent economy because international shipping would likely be severely restricted. Washington state’s waters support a huge variety of animals and plants, including a number of listed species such as Southern Resident orcas and Chinook salmon.   

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.