WASHINGTON — The four U.S. senators from Washington and Alaska are seeking to authorize construction of as many as four new heavy-duty icebreakers, vastly expanding the Coast Guard's beleaguered Seattle-based icebreaker fleet.
But with a price tag of $850 million or more per vessel, the odds of Congress' going along seem about as good as a snowball's chance in the warming polar climate.
The amendment to the 2014 Defense Authorization Act would allow the Navy to immediately sign multiyear contracts to procure the icebreakers and related systems. The Navy then would transfer the vessels to the Coast Guard, which operates and maintains the current fleet of three icebreakers, one of which is inactive.
That language was inserted by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who has long pushed to expand the nation's capabilities to deal with commercial and scientific exploration opening in the melting Arctic regions.
The polar north is increasingly becoming a battle ground among China, Russia and other nations eager to tap its deep reserves of oil and gas. That changing geopolitical reality prompted the Pentagon last week to issue its first Arctic Strategy to protect American national interests.
Some scientists believe that the Northwest Passage, which links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans via Canada's Arctic Archipelago, could become ice-free in the summer in this century. That would open a shipping route that would be days or even weeks shorter than traversing the Panama Canal.
Even as climate change paradoxically may increase the need for icebreakers by opening up once-isolated regions, Congress has shown little appetite for this "decidedly unsexy mission," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal watchdog group in Washington, D.C.
Ellis said efforts by Cantwell and her co-sponsors — Democrats Patty Murray, of Washington, and Mark Begich, of Alaska, and his Republican colleague, Lisa Murkowski — will help highlight the need for replacement ships.
"But it would take a lot more to turn that into bucks and into four new icebreakers," Ellis said.
What's more, it's not certain that the Senate could even pass this year's Defense Authorization Act, which includes a small pay raise for military personnel, renewals for weapons programs and other policy issues affecting the Pentagon. The bill is saddled with more than 500 amendments, and the Senate was unable to end debate before adjoining for the two-week Thanksgiving recess.
After authorization, Congress would then have to appropriate actual money to buy the ships.
A report commissioned in 2010 by the Coast Guard said the service would need six heavy and four medium icebreakers to meet its mission. Until last December, the Coast Guard had one operating icebreaker, the medium-duty Healy, which is primarily used for research activities in the Arctic.
A second ship, the heavy-duty Polar Sea, was on the verge of being scrapped for parts when Cantwell successfully fought for a reprieve. Cantwell and the other lawmakers favor bringing the Polar Sea back into service, which could cost several hundred million dollars.
Its sister ship, the Polar Star, emerged in December from a four-year, $57 million overhaul at Vigor Industrial in Seattle's Harbor Island. The Coast Guard took the Polar Star up to the Arctic in June to train the crew and to test its ice-clearing capabilities. It returned to the Coast Guard station in Seattle in August for regular maintenance, and was found to have held up well during the trip, said Brian Mannion, a Vigor spokesman. The ship will depart for Antarctica Dec. 3.
The Polar Sea and the Polar Star were built during the 1970s by Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle. Both ships are a decade past their 30-year life span.
Both ships are slightly shorter and smaller than the Healy but can bust through thicker ice. The Polar Sea and Polar Star can easily break 6 feet of ice at 3 knots, and 21 feet or more by backing and ramming. The Healy can break through ice up to 41/2 feet thick at a speed of 3 knots.
Asked if the receding and thinning polar ice warrants all the new icebreakers, Cantwell said through her spokesman that increases in commercial shipping, tourism and oil and mineral exploration will justify the investment. For instance, although Arctic-wide sea ice was at a minimum in 2012, drilling operations at certain parts of the Chukchi Sea were delayed because of major ice floes.
"America is at risk of losing the opportunity to have great influence over the growing Arctic economy," Cantwell said. "Icebreakers also mean maritime jobs in the Puget Sound, and a critical lifeline for businesses and communities to our North."
Devon Kearns, spokesman for Begich, said while Begich understands the nation "has a tight budget to consider, as an Arctic nation the U.S. risks falling behind the other Arctic nations" unless it asserts its interests.
A fourth polar icebreaker, the Nathaniel B. Palmer, supports National Science Foundation activities in the Arctic and the Antarctic and is leased from a Louisiana firm.