Skip to main content

Polar icebreaker dispute ties up Coast Guard bill

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 12:02 PM EDT, Fri November 4, 2011
The Coast Guard's cutter Polar Star has outlived its 30-year design. House Republicans want to decommission the icebreaker.
The Coast Guard's cutter Polar Star has outlived its 30-year design. House Republicans want to decommission the icebreaker.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • House Republicans push bill to decommission the icebreaker Polar Star in 3 years
  • Bill would force president to come up with plan for replacing icebreaker fleet
  • Administration's response: It opposes the Coast Guard authorization bill
  • Polar Star and Polar Sea both have outlived their 30-year design life

Washington (CNN) -- With the nation's only two heavy-duty polar icebreakers broken and out of service, the Obama administration and congressional Republicans are clashing on how best to put the U.S. Coast Guard back into the ice-busting business.

House Republicans, who say they want to force the administration's hand, are pushing a Coast Guard authorization bill that would decommission the icebreaker Polar Star, which is now being repaired, in just three years, saying that keeping the 35-year-old ship afloat is "throwing good money after bad."

The bill requires the administration to come up with a comprehensive plan to replace the aging icebreaker fleet.

On Thursday, the administration responded by announcing it is opposing the bill, citing the icebreaker issue.

Decommissioning the Polar Star would "create a significant gap in the nation's icebreaking capacity," the administration said. The ship is needed until long-term plans can be developed, it said.

The icebreaker issue is one that has been decades in the making, and has gained urgency with the thawing of ice in the Arctic Circle.

Diminishing ice, widely believed to be caused by global warming, may actually increase the need for icebreakers, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. The opening of waterways could lead to expanded commercial, cruise and military ship operations, and increase exploration for oil and other resources, the report says.

The Coast Guard uses icebreakers to defend U.S. sovereignty and interests, monitor sea traffic, launch search and rescue missions, conduct fisheries and law enforcement operations, and support scientific research, including resupplying McMurdo Station in Antarctica, a mission that is now contracted to Russian and Swedish icebreakers.

Currently, the U.S. Coast Guard has only three Polar icebreakers -- the Polar Star and its sister ship the Polar Sea, and the newer but less robust medium polar icebreaker Healy. In addition, the National Science Foundation leases a smaller ship, Nathaniel B. Palmer, for research in the Antarctic.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Polar Sea has also exceeded its 30-year design life.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Polar Sea has also exceeded its 30-year design life.

Both the Polar Star and Polar Sea have already exceeded their 30-year design life, and both have been removed from service because of breakdowns. The Polar Star was laid up in 2006, and the Polar Sea suffered unexpected engine problems in June 2010, and it has been out of service ever since.

Since mid-2010, the United States has had no heavy-duty icebreaker. Russia, which has a much larger Arctic border, has a fleet of about 20 icebreakers, including seven nuclear-powered ones.

The Coast Guard says it needs at least three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers to fulfill its statutory missions, but would require even more ships if the Coast Guard is to comply with a Naval Operations Concept issued in 2010 requiring a presence in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

The Coast Guard also has a fleet of icebreakers in the Great Lakes that keep shipping lanes open there.

The Congressional Research Service said one potential concern for Congress is the absence of a plan for replacing the Polar Star upon completion of its seven- to 10-year life after it returns to service in late 2012.

That is why Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-New Jersey, included the provision to decommission the Polar Star, said spokesman Jason Galanes. "We absolutely support the Arctic icebreaker mission," Galanes said. "We're forcing this decision rather then allowing the administration to kick the can down the road."

In a statement, the Office of Management and Budget said the administration "strongly opposes" the provision, and that the repairs to the Polar Star "will stabilize the United States' existing polar fleet until long-term icebreaking capability requirements are finalized."

Regardless of the outcome of the dispute, a gap in icebreaking capabilities is almost certain, according to the CRS report. Following any decision to design and build new icebreakers, the first replacement polar icebreaker might enter service in eight to 10 years, the report says.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT