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Murkowski and Cantwell
U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., call on the White House to upgrade the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet. In the background are workers at Vigor Shipyards, where the icebreaker USCGS Healy is undergoing maintenance. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

Two U.S. senators from opposite sides of the aisle – Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski – teamed up today to hold President Barack Obama to his word when it comes to beefing up the U.S. Coast Guard’s sagging fleet of polar icebreakers.

“We are falling behind in our icebreaking capacity,” Cantwell said during a news conference at Seattle’s Vigor Shipyards, where the medium icebreaker Healy is undergoing maintenance. She underscored her concern in a letter that was sent to Obama and released to journalists.

“There is a race to the Arctic – and the United States isn’t even in the game,” Cantwell said in the letter.

In addition to the Healy, the Coast Guard has only one on-duty heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is homeported in Seattle and is currently on duty in the Antarctic. The Polar Star’s sister ship, the Polar Sea, is dry-docked in Portland. It’s not yet clear when or if it will be refurbished.

That’s what worries Cantwell and Murkowski: The Coast Guard says it should have three heavy and three medium icebreakers to cover its anticipated needs in the Arctic and Antarctic. In comparison, Russia has 40 operational icebreaking ships, and another 11 are planned or under construction. Finland has seven icebreakers. Sweden has six.

Cantwell and Garrett
Retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. jeffrey Garrett shows U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell around the Healy at Vigor Shipyards. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

The United States needs to keep up, particularly in an age where Arctic resources and territorial claims have become the subject of international tussles, Murkowski said. “One and a half icebreakers does not a fleet make. Can we stipulate that?” she said. “We need a fleet.”

Murkowski joked that even she bought a ticket for the $1.5 billion Powerball lottery, with the aim of giving the Coast Guard part of the take if she won. “I didn’t win, but that would have helped,” she said. “We need more of a strategy than a wing and a prayer and a Powerball ticket.”

During his September visit to Alaska, Obama pledged to hurry up the acquisition of a new icebreaker and look into building more. Now it’s time for the White House to follow through. Cantwell told GeekWire that the budget proposal for fiscal year 2017, which is due to be unveiled next month, should include $350 million for the Coast Guard to acquire a new ship and refurbish the Polar Sea. She’s concerned that the request might get lost in the budget shuffle.

“It’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind,'” Cantwell said.

It’s also a case of ensuring the health of the Northwest economy. “Seattle is a hub for Arctic commerce,” she said.

Ekse, Cantwell and Garrett
Vigor operations manager Robert Ekse, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and retired Rear Adm. Jeffrey Garrett are dwarfed by one of the propellers on the USCGC Healy. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

She cited a 2015 report by the McDowell Group that said 113,000 jobs in the Puget Sound region, representing $6.2 billion in earnings, could be traced to Alaska-related commerce. That underscores the importance of icebreakers, because such ships help facilitate shipping, tourism, fishing and other Arctic industries.

Icebreakers can play role in rescue operations, as the Polar Star did last year in a high-profile case involving an Australian-flagged fishing vessel that was trapped in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound. The ships can play a national security role as well.

“This isn’t about war with guns,” Vigor Industrial CEO Frank Foti told GeekWire. “It’s about economic war. We need to balance the equation so we have economic peace.”

The visit to Vigor Shipyards provided an opportunity for Cantwell to walk around the Healy while the 420-foot-long, 16,000-ton ship is in dry dock. Retired Rear Adm. Jeffrey Garrett was her guide on the tour.

Garrett, a former commander of the Healy as well as the Polar Sea, was part of the advisory panel that recommended having six icebreakers in the Coast Guard’s fleet. Will that goal ever be achieved? “At a minimum, we need to start building one,” Garrett said.

The third annual Arctic Encounter symposium is focusing on the icebreaker gap and other Arctic policy issues. The symposium runs through Saturday at the University of Washington.

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