Icebreaker fleet in U.S. lags behind
January 13th, 2012 | Carey Restino
News of the unprecedented attempt by U.S. Coast Guard and the Russian tanker Renda to break through hundreds of miles of ice and bring fuel to Nome has enthralled Alaskans, and even caught the attention of the nation and the world. If successful, this would be the first time Western Alaska received a shipment of petroleum via the sea in the winter. But the spotlight illuminates another issue as well — the United States' insufficient icebreaker capacity.
During a time when traffic to and from the Arctic Alaska waters is higher than ever and only expected to increase exponentially, the U.S. Coast Guard is down to one polar icebreaker, the Healy, which is due to spend several months out of commission this winter for repairs.
"This is on our radar for sure, and it's on the radar of everyone all the way up to the commandant," said Coast Guard Lt. Commander Maeve Keogh. "We have to get prepared. The Coast Guard is aware of that and working to remedy it."
Fleet attention long time coming
Those in the know have been banging the drum for more icebreakers in the Arctic for years now, but funding has been slow in coming. In a 2010 congressional report, the increase in activity in the north was highlighted, as was the fact that the United States lags far behind other Arctic countries in icebreaker capacity. According to one source, as of January 2009, Russia had a fleet of 25 polar icebreakers, including six heavy icebreakers rated at more than 45,000 break horsepower, all of which are nuclear-powered. Finland and Sweden each had seven and more recent reports have Canada down for 13.
The report, as well as Alaska's congressional delegates, say that changes to the Arctic, brought by warming temperatures, will increase exploration for oil, gas and minerals. At the same time, tourism ships traveling through the region are likely to also increase, though Keogh said for now, the sagging economy has kept those to a minimum.
Last year, the Coast Guard visited Barrow to train and met with local officials. When asked how ready they were to respond if a tourist ship went down, for example, the answer was a resounding "not very."
"The Coast Guard doesn't have any publicly assigned assets (in the Arctic). None. Zero," Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo told those gathered.
U.S. fleet atrophies
Two of the three polar icebreakers owned by the U.S. Coast Guard have exceeded their intended 30-year service lives. The Polar Sea has been essentially decommissioned while its sister ship, the Polar Star, is currently being refurbished thanks in part to a $32.5 million senate appropriation. That ship is not expected to come online until next year, Keogh said.
That leaves the Healy, which is a smaller icebreaker designed to support scientific missions. At 420 feet, it does not have the capacity of the larger icebreakers.
"U.S. polar ice-breaking capacity is now at risk of being unable to support national interests in the north and the south," Admiral Thad Allen, then the Commandant of the Coast Guard, testified in 2008. "Today, our nation is at a crossroads with Coast Guard domestic and international ice-breaking capabilities. We have important decisions to make. And I believe we need to address our ice-breaking needs now."
Fast forward four years, and those decisions have yet to be made. It's estimated that once commissioned, an icebreaker might enter service in eight to 10 years and at a cost of $900 million. Refurbishing the Polar Sea to last another 25 years might cost $400 million, the congressional report said.
Protecting the waters
So why is it so important to have a fleet of icebreakers? Certainly, the need to break a pathway for a fuel-carrying barge is a rare and unusual occurrence. But those watching the activity in the Arctic say other needs are real.
The Coast Guard's primary mission is search and rescue, and with more people entering the emerging Arctic waters for work and for play, the risk of a catastrophe is increased. Scientific research has also increased, and the Coast Guard has assisted in some of that work when possible.
The Coast Guard also plays a big role in oil spill response, a high-ranking issue on the North Slope where exploration of new oil leases is expected to start as early as this year.
Given the current location of U.S. Coast Guard equipment and facilities, it could take days for help to reach a ship in distress.
There is also the issue of national security, as well as territorial rights in the Arctic. With many countries eyeing the newly ice-free waters, how the division will occur is somewhat up in the air. The congressional report outlines the sometimes-strained relationship between the United States and Russia, not to mention the potential for modern-day piracy and fishing rights as issues that will require increased security in the Arctic in the future.
Congressional delegates fly icebreaker flag high
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has long been a proponent of a beefier icebreaker fleet in the north. Quoted as saying that resource development in the Arctic cannot occur without icebreaker capacity, she said the lack of funding in support of the effort has stood in the way of such ventures.
Sen. Mark Begich, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, has also been working hard to secure funding, but it's been slow in coming.
The Senate passed a bill that included $8.9 billion for the Coast Guard for 2010, while Begich introduced the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, which is expected to be taken up this winter. That bill authorizes $8.7 billion for the fiscal years 2012 and 2013 and makes the Coast Guard the sole provider of polar ice-breaking services to agencies of the federal government. The bill also requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to ensure that the Coast Guard continues to operate a minimum of two heavy polar icebreakers as part of its fleet. It also calls for a feasibility study for a deep-water sea port in the Arctic "to protect and advance United States interests within the Arctic region."
There is also a recommendation from the Coast Guard based on several years of study, which is still making its way through the channels, said Keogh. Past recommendations dating back to 2008 have called for as many as six new icebreakers.
Keogh noted that while private companies may acquire their own icebreaker capacity because of their interest in developing resources in Arctic waters, those ships cannot be depended upon to respond in an emergency.
Keogh said the Coast Guard intends to set up some initial infrastructure in the North Slope this summer and icebreaker funding will hopefully find its way through the various channels and into actual vessels.
"Obviously, we wish we had an updated fleet," Keogh said. "We are there for everyone — not for our own means or for industry."