Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Congress Weighs In on Bolstering Arctic Readiness, Refurbishing Polar Sea

Increasing traffic and growing interest in oil exploration is behind introduction of legislation in Congress to strengthen icebreaking capabilities, increase vessel-tracking capacity and enhance oil spill response and recovery.

The Coast Guard Arctic Preparedness Act, S 2131, would give the Coast Guard the tools it needs to protect America’s interests in the Arctic, and meet its mission requirements, according to co-sponsors Senators Maria Cantwell, D-WA, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska. Both serve on the Senate subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard, which Begich chairs.

The melting polar ice cap has opened new passageways through the Arctic ice, increasing opportunity for international commerce, and with it increasing environmental concerns, including the capability of vessels to operate in sea ice.

With the Arctic opening up new opportunities for development and shipping, the Coast Guard needs to be better prepared to support increased activity in the region,” Begich said. “The US is an Arctic nation and it’s time that we commit serious resources to the region and start acting like one.”

The legislation, introduced in mid-March, would authorize the Coast Guard to overhaul the heavy icebreaker Polar Sea, now idle at Seattle’s Pier 36, and return it to service. When the Coast Guard earlier tried to scrap the 36-year-old Polar Sea, Cantwell and Begich introduced legislation to save the vessel, because its specialized hull is in excellent condition. Without the Polar Sea, the United States has only two operational polar icebreakers: the Polar Star and the Healy, the latter a medium icebreaker and research vessel. In 2012, the Healy drew international attention as it cut a path through Arctic sea ice to Nome, Alaska, to allow for delivery of critically needed fuel.

The bill would also be good news for Washington state’s economy. “Refurbishing a large icebreaking vessel like the Polar Sea can mean hundreds of shipbuilding jobs,” Cantwell said. “The Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet also needs new vessels and I look forward to working with my colleagues to get that accomplished.”

Building a new vessel can take eight to ten years and employ more than 1,000 workers, while refurbishing a large icebreaker like the Polar Star can take roughly five years, employing upwards of 300 workers, Cantwell said. Even if the proposed legislation passes, work on the Polar Sea would not begin until Congress approves money through the appropriations process.

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