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Vol. 17, No. 52 Week of December 23, 2012
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Old icebreaker nears relaunch; Coast Guard act has Arctic focus

We’re beginning to see substantial progress toward restoring the nation’s depleted icebreaker fleet.

Vigor Shipyards in Seattle on Dec. 17 wrapped up a $56 million overhaul of the heavy icebreaker Polar Star, and the next day returned the ship to the U.S. Coast Guard.

It will undergo sea trials in 2013 before returning to service, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy told Petroleum News.

“It’s not fully functional yet,” she said.

Presently, the United States has only one operational icebreaker at its disposal, the medium-duty Healy.

The lack of ready icebreakers has been the subject of alarm and controversy. Building or repairing the specialized ships is extremely expensive, yet political leaders say an adequate icebreaker fleet is essential as climate change makes the Arctic Ocean more accessible.

Preserving icebreaker options

Congress on Dec. 12 passed the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2012 (H.R. 2838), which is now before President Obama for his signature.

The act includes a section on icebreakers, and other provisions related to the Arctic.

The Polar Star is an old ship that’s been out of service for quite a while, having been placed in “caretaker” status in 2006. Commissioned in 1976, it is one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear ships, capable of breaking through ice several feet thick.

The Polar Star’s sister ship, the heavy icebreaker Polar Sea, also is homeported at Seattle and inactive, having experienced major engine problems in 2010.

The Polar Sea was headed for scrap, but the Coast Guard act plots a different course. It directs the government to conduct a “business case analysis” of the options and costs of reactivating and extending the service life of the Polar Sea until at least 2022. The act forbids the government from taking parts off the Polar Sea until the analysis is done.

If the analysis shows it’s not cost-effective to reactivate the Polar Sea, the Coast Guard must submit a strategy for maintaining polar icebreaking services until at least 2022.

“Icebreakers are critical to our national security and America’s interests in the Arctic,” said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “As commerce in the Arctic continues to increase, our nation’s need for icebreakers will continue to grow. This bill preserves the option of refurbishing the Polar Sea and supports shipbuilding jobs in the Puget Sound as America determines the most cost-effective way to meet our mission requirements for icebreakers.”

Deepwater Arctic port

The Coast Guard act features two other important Arctic provisions.

It directs the government to prepare “an assessment of the need for additional Coast Guard prevention and response capability in the high-latitude regions.”

The act also directs the Coast Guard, in consultation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others, to conduct a study on “the feasibility of establishing a deepwater seaport in the Arctic to protect and advance strategic United States interests within the Arctic region.”

The study will look at potential locations for a deepwater port, and the timeframe and resources needed to establish it. The study will be due one year after enactment of the act.

—Wesley Loy



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