Breaking the Ice: Actually Doing Something About America’s Icebreaker Situation

February 25, 2016 in Blog

Earlier this week, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft highlighted the need to bulk up America’s fleet of icebreakers in his 2016 State of the Coast Guard Address. This is not the first time he has spoken about America’s diminutive ice-ready fleet of just one. Adm. Zukunft’s latest call-to-action adds to the growing chorus of insistent voices around the country calling for a new icebreaker, especially as America’s sole heavy icebreaker “celebrates” its 40th birthday this year.

Yet, even though many speak about the need for the government to “do something” to address this inadequacy, they also readily acknowledge the challenges involved in funding a $1 billion dollar investment. Even President Obama’s sizable and far-reaching budget request for fiscal year 2017 allocated only $150 million toward building a new heavy icebreaker – “modest progress,” as the Seattle Times editorialized, but a “vastly greater investment is needed to protect U.S. interests in the Arctic.”

What is often left unsaid, however, is the fact that the United States has within its arsenal an efficient and economical way to build up its icebreaker fleet: by encouraging Arctic oil and gas development.

“What this country needs is a good icebreaker”

In his address this week, Adm. Zukunft emphasized the need to “shore up our aging infrastructure and invest in our capital fleet,” given that the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star is “our Nation’s sole operational heavy icebreaker capable of operating in ice up to 21-feet thick”:

“It causes me great discomfort, as it should everyone in this audience, that the U.S. has no insurance policy – no self-rescue capability whatsoever – should Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star and her nearly 40-year-old engineering plant suffer an engineering casualty and become beset in the ice of Antarctica.”

Last year, he warned, “We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now. … We’re not playing in this game at all.”

Adm. Zukunft is one of the many people who have spoken out about the need to commission new icebreakers this month alone. This past Monday, a column in the Portland Press Herald titled “Forging ahead with icebreaker would profit nation, Maine” declared, “What this country needs is a good icebreaker.”

The column quoted Sen. Angus King (I-ME) calling the commissioning of a new icebreaker “basic governance,” especially given the size of the Russian fleet:

“They’ve got the equivalent of an interstate. … And we’ve got the equivalent of a country road in western York County.”

The column ended with the following exhortation:

“Congress, we beg you, build us a new icebreaker.”

About two weeks ago, the Seattle Times editorial board opined about the state of the U.S. icebreaker fleet in a piece titled, “More funding needed for icebreakers to protect U.S. Arctic interests”:

“The United States is woefully short of the heavy-duty icebreakers it needs to establish a presence and credibly represent its interests.”

The editorial also quoted Washington’s Senator Maria Cantwell (D) stating:

“With other countries upgrading their presence in the Arctic, we need new vessels.”

Many others have called for a new icebreaker, including Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Rep. Don Young (R-AK), Alaska’s former lieutenant governor Mead Treadwell, the National Research Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Center for American Progress.

If the consensus is in – the U.S. needs more icebreakers – then why don’t we have one, or two, or three in the works? The daunting price tag would be why: between $900 million and $1.1 billion for just one new heavy icebreaker.

Even though Congress would be “blazing a path to prosperity” by approving funding for a new icebreaker, President Obama’s budget proposal is expected to face much scrutiny and hostility in Congress for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, uncertainty looms large, as Adm. Zukunft told reporters after his address:

“What we do need is a bonafide appropriation to say that we are serious about acquiring new icebreakers. Our industrial complex and a number of shipyards have said we can build this in the United States, and I’m quite confident they can, but they are looking for a demonstration of commitment by our government to do so.”

The icebreaker funding problem featured front and center in a column penned this month by Norton A. Schwartz, retired general and former chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, and James G. Stavridis, retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO):

“Nearly everyone in Washington agrees that the Arctic region is more important, commercially and strategically, than ever. The rub lies in the funding. Each heavy icebreaker is expected to cost around $1 billion. … But given the stormy budget climate on Capitol Hill, there are no guarantees. … Even in the best budget climate the acquisition process is painfully slow, and it could take decades to bridge the ‘icebreaker gap.’”

If only there were a way around messy politics, a shortcut that would not cost taxpayers an arm and a leg. But that’s exactly what Arctic oil and gas development would do:

When oil and gas companies drill in the Arctic, they bring with them their own specialized fleet of drill ships and support vessels – with icebreakers leading the way. When Shell drilled in the Arctic last summer, for example, its fleet consisted of about 30 vessels. These vessels, including an icebreaker, offer a strong presence and a critical resource in the Arctic should their services be needed – as they were last October, when the Coast Guard called on Shell to rescue a stranded sailor, as it had also done back in 2010.

A report by the National Petroleum Council highlighted the “many synergies” between the infrastructure needs for oil and gas activities and for local communities, the State of Alaska, and the U.S. Armed Forces:

“There are many synergies between the types of infrastructure that would facilitate Arctic oil and gas exploration and development and the infrastructure needs of local communities, the state of Alaska, and elements of the U.S. Forces such as the Coast Guard and Navy…The Coast Guard and Navy, which play key roles in areas of safety, search and rescue, and national defense, are subject to many of the same resupply and support requirements in the Arctic as the oil and gas industry.”

Given that Arctic oil and gas development offers a solution to a problem that has been widely acknowledged by lawmakers across the aisle, local officials, think tanks, and government agencies, you would think that the government would jump on the obvious opportunity by supporting greater Arctic drilling. Instead, it has thrown hurdle after hurdle in the way of project developers willing to spend billions on exploring the Arctic’s rich resource potential – even though Arctic oil and gas development is already heavily regulated to begin with.

In Short

As other countries continue to ramp up their presence in the Arctic, the United States cannot afford to be all talk and no action. Strengthening our infrastructural capabilities in the region is a priority, and Arctic oil and gas development can help get us there. In the meantime though, Arctic Energy Center wishes the Polar Star a productive and fruitful 40th year.