Missing the boat

This editorial originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:


Freeze-up turned a fuel barge away from Nome late last month, nicely underlining points made by Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell in a presentation to Congress just days later.

The United States has no functioning heavy icebreaking ship today, and only one medium-duty icebreaker serves waters around Alaska. This is a strange circumstance, viewed from the perspective of the state with the most coastline and greatest extent of ice.

“It’s time for Congress and the administration to act now to add new polar class icebreakers in the United States Coast Guard’s fleet,” Treadwell told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation last week. “The need is more urgent than ever as we see historic changes in global shipping patterns in the Arctic.”

While Treadwell’s presentation touched broadly on the risks associated with the nation’s anemic icebreaking capabilities, the city of Nome was facing a very specific result.

The Delta Western barge, carrying 1.6 million gallons of fuel, couldn’t dock in Nome last week because of heavy ice.

If nothing is done, gasoline will need to be flown into Nome, an expense that will force up prices that already approach $6 per gallon.

In Alaska, the Coast Guard has one medium-duty icebreaker, the Healy, which is often busy with scientific studies.

The Healy showed up in Nome last week — initially not to break the ice but to swap some personnel before heading south to Seattle. Officials were looking at what the ship could do, urged on by members of the Alaska congressional delegation, who pointed out the irony of the situation.

“This pending fuel shortage in rural Alaska highlights the lack of Coast Guard icebreaking capability in the state,” Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, wrote to the Coast Guard. “Elsewhere in our nation, the Coast Guard frequently operates icebreakers and icebreaking tugs to keep waterways open and to allow for delivery of fuel and other critical commodities.”

Treadwell’s full testimony offered a circumpolar perspective on why this should change.

And, to his credit, he did not simply beg for more federal expenditures in Alaska but offered some detailed suggestions about where to find the funding.

As the polar ice cap thins and crumbles, other nations are all moving rapidly to take advantage of the new polar sea routes, Treadwell noted. Use of those routes can cut enormous amounts of time and expense for shipping — up to 40 percent in some cases. That can mean millions of dollars of savings in fuel and labor on a single trip. “Other Arctic — and even non-Arctic — nations have seen the potential, but America is missing the boat,” he said.

Not all these nations have heavy, polar class icebreakers, but they are investing in various ships able to handle ice.

Russia will build nine icebreakers in the next decade, he noted. Already, he said, “Sweden has at least four vessels; Finland, at least six; and Russia over two dozen (and counting). Canada has about eight, and even the European Union is constructing an icebreaker — a heavy, polar class icebreaker.”

While having similar capabilities would help the United States protect its commercial and territorial interests, it also would help deal with the environmental risks posed by the ships unleashed by other countries. “U.S. vessels are highly regulated,” Treadwell noted. “But ships originating outside the U.S. — such as those traveling between Russia or Europe and Asia, are not even required to have a spill contingency plan, even though they pass by hundreds of miles of U.S. coastline.”

This is a bad time to appeal for an expensive new federal ship or two, the lieutenant governor acknowledged. He offered a few options.

Treadwell said Lawson Brigham, a University of Alaska professor and former Coast Guard icebreaker captain, observed at a recent conference in Juneau that the U.S. Navy plans to build 47 Littoral Combat Ships for $400 million to $500 million each.

Treadwell said Brigham asked, “Why not consider building 45 of these ships, and allocating that other $800 million to $1 billion in the budget for the Coast Guard to build one major polar icebreaker?”

Perhaps the U.S. could charge for icebreaking services to offset costs, Treadwell suggested. Other nations are doing so.

Money is tight, but having the ability to break ice is essential to our nation’s commercial, environmental and national security interests.

As Treadwell said, “America has been an Arctic nation for 150 years. It’s time we started acting like it.”


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