Icebreakers top US Arctic needs during House testimony

The challenges behind melding the Arctic needs of the State of Alaska and federal agencies were exemplified during a July 23 House subcommittee meeting.

Representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and the State of Alaska testified to what they need to operate in the Arctic. Topping the list in the testimony before the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee was icebreaking capability.

Subcommittee chair Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said the United States is already behind Russia in that regard, which operates about 40 icebreaking vessels, and China, which isn’t an Arctic nation.

“The U.S. fleet of icebreakers is in a dismal state. I wouldn’t even call it a fleet, really,” Hunter said in his opening remarks.

The Coast Guard has two operational icebreakers, the Healy and the Polar Star. A third, the Polar Sea, is currently deactivated.

With the 2013 release of an Arctic strategy report by the White House and a subsequent implementation plan, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said he is glad the Obama administration is taking the Arctic seriously, but disappointed that the planning initiatives “have not yet taken root in the administration’s budget.”

“The stark reality is that with each passing year the Arctic is becoming more open, more accessible, warmer and a more compelling economic and security interest to the U.S.,” Garamendi said. “Other nations have grasped this reality; we should too.”

The U.S. will lose power and influence in the region if the federal government does not take Arctic issues seriously, Hunter said.

The U.S. is set to take chairmanship of the international Arctic Council forum beginning next year.

The round figure of $1 billion is the estimated price tag to construct a new heavy icebreaker for use by the Coast Guard and the Navy.

Hunter said an icebreaker that is simply a research vessel and not capable of carrying out Defense Department missions would cost about $500 million. He asked both NOAA Director of Response and Restoration and retired Coast Guard Capt. Dave Westerholm and National Science Foundation polar director Kelly Faulkner if their agencies would be willing to contribute to funding construction of one or more icebreakers.

Westerholm and Faulkner said their budgets, collectively about $11 billion, are not allocated to build an icebreaker.

The agencies, including branches of the military, are protecting their “current budget turf,” Garamendi said, when building icebreakers should be a shared responsibility.

While the National Science Foundation may not be ready to fund construction of such a vessel, it is the foundation’s position that high-tech science capabilities be left off any future icebreakers if the cost of the features could compromise the heavy icebreaking mission.

In a lighter moment, while smiling in the direction of Rep. Don Young, Garamendi said, “Perhaps from the oil revenues of Alaska we can find money” to build an icebreaker.

“If we build an icebreaker we’re going to charge the hell out of you,” Young responded.

Young and Hunter questioned why the agencies couldn’t contract with private firms that have icebreaking vessels for their work.

Faulkner said the National Science Foundation has contracted for icebreaking capabilities in the past.

A July 17 Congressional Research Service report updating the status of the Coast Guard’s effort to modernize its icebreakers found growing uncertainty in the Department of Homeland Security’s budget requests for icebreaker funds.

The fiscal year 2013 submission laid out requests totaling $860 million through fiscal year 2017, a funding schedule that would have allowed the Coast Guard to take delivery of a vessel within 10 years, according to the report. The fiscal year 2014 budget submission pushed back and lessened funding requests to $230 million through fiscal year 2018. This year’s budget request is for $230 million through fiscal year 2019.

If the $6 million in the current request is awarded, the Coast Guard will have received $15.6 million for icebreaker acquisition over the last three years.

Alaska Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels testified that social issues that plague many of the roughly 50,000 residents of Arctic Alaska are directly related to a lack of economic development in the area. The federal government needs to cooperate with the state to encourage proper resource management and development in the region, something that hasn’t happened recently, he said.

“The state is concerned about the opportunistically heavy-handed interpretation we have seen of certain laws and systems over natural resource management in Alaska, particularly those pertaining to resource development permitting, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the (Army Corps of Engineers) 404 permitting system, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal and Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act,” Fogels testified. “We request that Congress review the executive branch’s burdensome, inefficient, scientifically dubious and overly-broad application of these laws which can place additional weight on the individuals, businesses and communities that drive the well-being of Alaska.”

Fogels referenced Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s denial of a road between the Aleutian villages of King Cove and Cold Bay as “an example of what we don’t need to do in the Arctic.”

He said the state is on the forefront of resource stewardship and has a management program that should be a model for Arctic nations and the rest of the United States.

The state’s investigation into access roads on the North Slope and the Ambler Mining District in Northwest Alaska are projects that could help the region’s economy, he said.

In Alaska’s push for Arctic infrastructure development, Fogels cited the state’s collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers on a plan for a deepwater port near Nome. Such a port has been advertised as an Arctic station by the Coast Guard and oilfield service and response vessels.

The Corps of Engineers recommendation for an Arctic port is expected by the end of the year.

11/22/2016 - 2:12pm