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Congress urged to act on icebreakers

Posted: December 2, 2011 - 1:03am

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell joined Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp on Thursday in making a push before Congress to better protect Alaska’s Arctic.

Other nations, they said, were aggressively developing their Arctic resources and the United States needs to be there too, they told the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Marine Transportation.

“America is missing the boat,” was Treadwell’s key message, and among the boats he’d like to see the Coast Guard have are new heavy icebreakers.

Currently, the nation’s two Polar-class heavy icebreakers are in limbo, with only the medium icebreaker Healy available, Papp said.

Among the strategies the committee discussed for beefing up the country’s icebreaking fleet was leasing privately owned vessels, just recently the topic of discussion at an Arctic investment forum at the University of Alaska Southeast.

That strategy got aggressive support from at least one Republican member of Congress, but there were concerns as well.

Treadwell said Arctic ice cover was at historic minimums, but still limited activity in the winter. Ice-breaking capability extends the season as ice begins forming in the fall, and then breaks up in the spring.

Other strategies for asserting American sovereignty that were discussed included ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty and developing further north port infrastructure.

Papp said having the ice-breaking cutter Healy operating in Arctic waters helps the U.S. assert its claims there.

“The Healy provides a sovereign presence in those waters,” Papp said.

Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., repeatedly advocated the use of leasing to get the United States new icebreakers. Those new vessels would presumably be built in his home state, where Shell Oil Co. is building its own icebreaking vessels.

Treadwell said leasing privately owned icebreakers might be the way to go.

“It seems like it may be a way to get us the capability that the admiral needs,” Treadwell said.

Congressman Don Young, a member of the subcommittee, suggested Alaska could build icebreakers and lease them to the federal government to get around the initial funding hurdle.

Papp warned leasing might not provide the cost savings some believe it might, but said he wasn’t taking a stand.

“I’m ambivalent,” he said. “We just need the icebreaking capability.”

Landry aggressively pushed the benefits of leasing.

“If you blow a rod on a leased vessel, you get a newer, more up-to-date vessel,” he said.

Leasing could provide two icebreakers at the same costs of owning one, he said.

The commandant seemed skeptical.

“There is a point where leasing becomes more expensive,” he said. “The government tends to operate its vessels for many years and may exceed that point.”

Papp said he’d just returned a leased car, and “at the end of my lease I have no car, and I’ve been spending a lot of money,” he said.

A congressman told Papp he now had the opportunity to get a completely new car, but that’s not how Papp said he viewed it.

“I was really considering buying my next car,” he said.

Landry said the Congressional Budget Office’s formula for calculating costs was biased against leasing, and requires lease expenses to be counted up front.

“The federal government doesn’t understand cash flow,” Landry said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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