ANCHORAGE — Climate warming means more people are using Arctic waters, Alaska’s lieutenant governor said Wednesday, and an even greater need for the country to maintain its presence in the region with polar ice breakers.
“We’re missing the boat while other nations are expanding their icebreaker fleet,” Mead Treadwell said.
He will bring that message to Washington, D.C., on Thursday, when Treadwell is scheduled to testify at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation chaired by Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.
Russia has announced it will build nine new icebreakers, Treadwell said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. Treadwell was in the room in September, he said, when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he wanted the Arctic sea route to be as important as the Suez Canal.
At least 18 vessels made trans-Arctic voyages last year, Treadwell said, and the United States is not prepared if there’s a wreck.
“We feel we’re pretty naked right now with the increased shipping in the Bering Strait,” he said. “Because a lot of them are carrying fuel, crude oil, oil products, and none of them have contingency plans that tie in with the state of Alaska or the federal government.”
The Coast Guard currently has one functioning icebreaker — the Healy, a medium-duty vessel. The country’s two heavy icebreakers, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea, remain docked in their homeport of Seattle. The Polar Star is going through $57 million in upgrades and could be ready for duty in 2013.
With doubts about how long the heavy icebreakers could operate even after renovations, Congress is reviewing their futures. House Republicans have floated legislation that would permanently mothball the vessels. U.S. Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced legislation that would prevent decommissioning of the Polar Sea.
Treadwell said the House strategy to mothball the heavy icebreakers without replacements is designed to force a conversation about icebreaker policy, but is a risky game of chicken if it fails.
Alaska is interested, he said, because of the safety issues, potential jobs and the chance to export its natural resources to global markets through Arctic routes.
“If this is going to mean to global ship transportation what polar air routes mean to global air transportation, I think Alaskans would like to have a part of it,” he said.
Alaska has more coastline than all other states combined, he said. The Coast Guard needs icebreakers for its core missions of protecting sovereignty, enforcing environmental law, responding to environmental hazards and assisting in scientific research.
Icebreakers do more than clear paths for other ships, Treadwell said.
“We believe we deserve the same all-conditions, all-hazards protection that the rest of the country gets,” he said. “If we are headed toward a time of more open water, it doesn’t mean there’s no ice. It does mean it’s a much more accessible ocean that people are already beginning to use, and you want to have the capability for response that could meet all hazards.”
Alaska also is open to the idea floated by the state’s only U.S. representative, Don Young, for leasing icebreakers.
The icebreaker discussion should include their effects on commerce, he added.
“A billion dollars would barely move a mile of dirt in widening the Panama Canal,” he said. “Here a couple of icebreakers at $750 million or so apiece can actually open up a major sea route for global commerce.”
There may be a way to have shipping help pay for icebreakers, Treadwell said, perhaps as part of oil spill response capability. But America needs to focus on a changing Arctic, he said.
“Explorers have been trying to make these sea routes happen for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Treadwell said. “We’re now at a time when it actually can happen and is happening. For us as a country, we’ve got to prepare for it.”