Congress pays for another icebreaker, authorizes more

  • The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star arrives at Pier 26 on Coast Guard Base Seattle after a 108-day deployment to Antarctica, March 21, 2014. The nation’s only heavy icebreaker will patrol the Bering Sea this winter for the first time in decades and Congress has approved funds to build a second heavy security cutter in its most recent ominbus spending package. (Photo/U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Jordan Akiyama)

Congress paid for a second new heavy icebreaker among its year-end spending flurry and also helped Nome move one step closer to having a place to moor it.

Inside the federal budget portion omnibus spending package that also included the second round of COVID-19 aid money and Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s energy reform bill is $555 million for the U.S. Coast Guard to spend on another icebreaker, or a polar security cutter in Coast Guard parlance.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a press briefing following the passage of the bills that the funding is proof that the Alaska delegation’s years of effort to focus more attention on the nation’s Arctic are paying off.

That was also partly borne out in the annual water resources and infrastructure bill portion of the omnibus legislation that approves port and harbor development and maintenance spending nationwide.

“We killed it in that bill,” Sullivan said.

The 2020 water development bill authorizes $379 million for the federal share of a long-sought deep-draft port in Nome among other projects in the state.

While Congress still has to actually appropriate the money, Sullivan said he’s confident that will happen within the next couple years. The 2018 version of the legislation authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading the project, permitted the agency to engineer and design the roughly $600 million expansion of Nome’s current port.

The ultimate goal of the project to deepen the Western Alaska port and further develop shore side infrastructure is to have a more northerly location from which to launch Arctic search and rescue, research and law enforcement missions in the increasingly active region.

Sullivan said senators on both sides of the aisle recognize the national security need for the project as other countries continue to grow their icebreaker fleets and particularly Russia continues to ramp up its presence in the region; Dutch Harbor is currently the closest deepwater port to Alaska’s Arctic.

“They get it — that this is a key piece of infrastructure to protect our interests as Americans, not just something that’s important to Alaskans,” Sullivan said. “There’s excitement about this, and not just in Nome.”

As chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee on security, Sullivan sponsored the Coast Guard authorization bill that was rolled into the $740 billion 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

The members of the Alaska delegation supported a Jan. 1 override of President Donald Trump’s veto of the NDAA.

Provisions in the defense bill also authorize the Coast Guard to maintain the current contract for three heavy icebreakers and to award contracts for construction of up to three more.

It also authorizes $745 million for construction of another icebreaker.

As with the authorization for the Nome port, the approvals in the Coast Guard bill do not appropriate construction funds but Congress has now invested in icebreakers in three consecutive years with the $555 million that is intended to fully-fund the second new icebreaker.

The first new icebreaker in decades was funded in 2019 and is expected to be complete in 2024 with the second coming a couple years later.

Murkowski said in a prepared statement that she’s proud of the recent progress that’s been made to strengthen the country’s security presence in the Arctic.

“The authorization of additional polar security cutters in the final NDAA is significant and a sign that we are moving in the right direction,” Murkowski said.

Currently, the country’s only heavy icebreaker — the 43-year-old Polar Star — does most of its work on the other end of the world, returning to its homeport of Seattle each summer for maintenance and repairs. It breaks ice and escorts supply vessels to access the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station research center in Antarctica.

This year, however, limitations on Antarctic research activities stemming from the pandemic have turned the Polar Star north and it will spend much of the winter off the coast of Western Alaska.

Sullivan has routinely noted his frustration that the Polar Star doesn’t primarily operate off of Alaska and emphasized that the new cutters should not only work around the state, but also call it home.

“Just putting icebreakers in Seattle because current icebreakers are in Seattle to me makes no sense,” Sullivan said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
01/13/2021 - 10:02am