Alaska, Washington senators file bill to build Arctic icebreakers

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The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in Alaska in 2008. (AP)
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in Alaska in 2008. (AP)
WASHINGTON — Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have introduced a billthat would authorize the Navy to build up to six icebreakers for use by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Murkowski and Cantwell said the Coast Guard and the Navy need the icebreakers — which cost billions of dollars — to complete their missions and keep up with Russia and China’s growing icebreaker fleets and activity in the Arctic.

Melting sea ice means the Arctic is more accessible to foreign interests in the summer months and that means more concerns for security, the environment and safety, Murkowski and Cantwell said in a joint statement.

Sen. Dan Sullivan has signed on to co-sponsor the bill.

Currently the U.S. has two working icebreakers: the recently retrofitted heavy-duty icebreaker Polar Star and the medium-duty research vessel Healy.

Russia has dozens of icebreakers — 11 of them comparable to the two U.S. vessels — and nearly a dozen more are in the works, according to the senators.

“As an Arctic nation, America must be a global leader towards an Arctic future,” Murkowski said, pointing to existing investments in the Arctic by Russia, Canada, China and India. “From a military perspective, this is an imperative; from an economic development viewpoint, it is a down payment on an Arctic future, and as a scientific research opportunity, it opens up a new world of knowledge.”

Pressing on Arctic issues

Murkowski and Sullivan have for months been pressing military officials on Arctic policies. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter conceded that the U.S. is falling short in its Arctic planning.

Six new icebreakers would be a sure boon to Washington’s shipbuilding industry. Cantwell has previously said that building a new icebreaker can take as long as a decade and employ 1,000 people.

“Icebreakers protect America’s Arctic interests and support Washington state shipbuilding jobs,” Cantwell said in a statement.

Last year Rear Adm. Daniel Abel, commandant for the Coast Guard in Alaska, told the U.S. Arctic Research Commission that the Coast Guard can get by with the Healy and the Polar Star until about 2020. Four years ago, a Coast Guard study said the U.S. needs six heavy-duty and four medium icebreakers.

The bill could find a home in Coast Guard reauthorization, which should be introduced soon in the Senate. On Monday, the House passed a Coast Guard reauthorization bill without controversial environmental measures that often prevent legislation from passing in the Senate.

Related stories from around the North:

Asia:  Full steam ahead for Asian icebreakers in the Arctic this summer, Blog by Mia Bennett

Canada: Canada’s Arctic patrol ships – A $250M mystery, CBC News

Finland: New Finland icebreaker can operate sideways with asymmetrical hull, Yle News

Russia: New icebreakers open way for Russia in Arctic, Yle News

Sweden: Swedish icebreakers gear up for Arctic role, Radio Sweden

United States: New ferry contract part of effort to create shipbuilding industry in Alaska, Alaska Dispatch

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