The U.S. Needs More Icebreakers. Arctic Drilling Can Help.

January 7, 2016 in Blog

A recent piece, aptly titled “America Must Build More Icebreakers or We’ll Lose the Battle for the Arctic,” highlights the infrastructural challenges the U.S. faces in the Far North, a topic that Arctic Energy Center has written about time and time again. WIRED Magazine warns that the U.S. “remains dangerously unprepared for the profound changes and opportunities coming to the Arctic,” as made obvious by the “pitiful state of its icebreaker fleet.” What the article does not mention, however, is the oil and gas industry’s demonstrated ability to help meet the Arctic’s infrastructural challenges by increasing the resources, equipment, and capabilities present in the region.

In what WIRED describes as a “short-sighted and foolhardy policy that will leave it scrambling to catch up with [other] Arctic nations,” the U.S. currently only has one heavy icebreaker – one that was “commissioned in 1976 and already 10 years past its expected service life.” By contrast, Russia has 41 icebreakers – “more than the rest of the world combined.” In fact, a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker reportedly broke the speed record in December 2015 for the Northern Sea Route. Even China, which is not an Arctic state, already has one operational icebreaker and another one on the way. The need for more U.S. icebreakers has been emphasized by the Department of Homeland Security, the Congressional Research Service, the White House, and many others, including Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan (R), who said:

“The highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers. Right now, the Russians have superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.”

But despite the pressing need for the U.S. to expand its icebreaking fleet, doing so is logistically difficult, beginning with the fact that a new icebreaker would cost roughly $1 billion and require eight to ten years to build, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The oil and gas industry can help boost U.S. icebreaking capacity in the Arctic a lot faster. Oil and gas companies operating in the Arctic bring their own equipment and infrastructure, including icebreakers, to support their operations. For example, Shell’s Arctic fleet last season consisted of about 30 vessels, and the company even overhauled a helicopter hangar for search-and-rescue purposes in Barrow, Alaska.

Furthermore, the kind of equipment used by the oil and gas industry operating in the Arctic can be used for more than just drilling. A report by the National Petroleum Council noted the “many synergies between the types of infrastructure” used by oil and gas companies, the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Navy:

“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.”

In fact, when a Frenchman and his cat were stranded off Alaska’s northwest coast last summer after their sailboat malfunctioned, it was Shell that the Coast Guard reached out to for assistance, and one of Shell’s vessels that ultimately completed the rescue mission – the same vessel that carried out a similar rescue mission in 2011.

In Short

Many agree that our national security risks in the region are growing quickly as receding Arctic ice continues to increase access to the region. In light of these challenges, improving our Arctic infrastructure is becoming more and more urgent. And while expanding the Coast Guard’s fleet of icebreakers is certainly an option, it would take at least a full decade to materialize. Rather than throwing roadblock after roadblock in its way, allowing the oil and gas industry to help fill these infrastructural gaps would be much faster and more effective – as has already been demonstrated in the past.