Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
April 2017

Vol. 22, No. 16 Week of April 16, 2017

Coast Guard issues polar icebreaker RFI

Agency continues to pursue an objective of building new vessels to maintain and bolster U.S. ability to operate in polar regions

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a request for information, seeking questions, comments and feedback relating to the construction of a new polar icebreaker. The RFI comes as part of ongoing market research that the agency is conducting with the U.S. Navy into specifications for an icebreaker, including hull structure, propulsion, electrical plants, weaponry, outfitting and auxiliary systems, the Coast Guard said. Companies are invited to submit responses by June 6.

New specification

In January U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said that the Coast Guard had developed a new icebreaker specification. The Coast Guard now says that it is releasing a draft specification for a heavy polar icebreaker and that the new RFI seeks feedback from industry on that specification.

In February, as part of the same program, the Coast Guard awarded five contracts for heavy polar icebreaker design studies and analysis. The purpose of that initiative was to identify design approaches that would reduce acquisition costs and production timelines, with the contractors asked to investigate major design cost drivers; approaches to addressing potential acquisition, technology and production risks; and benefits associated with different types of production contract.

Current icebreakers

Currently the Coast Guard only operates two polar capable icebreakers: the Healy, a medium duty icebreaker, much used as a base for polar research, and the Polar Star, which is a heavy icebreaker but is 41 years old and nearing the end of its operational life. A third icebreaker, the Polar Sea, sister ship to the Polar Star, is laid up in port. According to a report by the U.S. Naval Institute, in February Rear Adm. Bruce Baffner of the U.S. Coast Guard told a symposium of the American Society of Naval Engineers that the Coast Guard had determined that upgrading the Polar Sea to an operational state would not be cost effective. Instead, the vessel had become a parts donor for the Polar Star, Baffner said.

Concern about U.S. dependence on just two icebreakers, given the country’s roles in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, has for several years been the subject of much debate but little funding. President Obama, towards the end of his presidency, proposed accelerating the replacement of the country’s existing heavy icebreaker while also planning for additional icebreakers. The Coast Guard says that it will need a minimum of two new heavy icebreakers, to ensure year-round access to the polar regions and to provide some self-rescue capability.

But, while the agency has funding to conduct initial spadework into icebreaker design, the major funding required for heavy icebreaker construction remains elusive.

The Coast Guard project

According to a March 2017 report to Congress by the Congressional Research Service, the Coast Guard’s project to acquire a new polar icebreaker began in 2013, with an appropriation of $15.6 million through to fiscal year 2016. The Coast Guard’s objective was to start icebreaker construction in 2020. And the agency has now requested $150 million in funding for the project in fiscal year 2017, to pay for the planning of design activities, the report says.

The funding for 2017 would come as part of the Coast Guard’s five-year capital investment plan for fiscal years 2017 to 2021. That plan would require a total spend of $780 million on the icebreaker project, including the $150 million requested for 2017, the report says.

Although there is no official estimate for the total acquisition cost for a new heavy polar icebreaker, that cost, including design work, is thought to be around $1 billion, the report says.

The report also comments that in October 2016, as part of a request for information for feedback on the Coast Guard’s approach to icebreaker acquisition, the agency had presented a schedule for acquiring three icebreakers, with acquisition of materials for the first vessel starting in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2019, and delivery of the vessels taking place between the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2023 and the second quarter of fiscal year 2026.

A timing concern

And a heavy polar icebreaker that begins construction in 2020, as in the Coast Guard’s originally stated objective, might enter service in 2024 or 2025, the report says. Meanwhile, the Polar Star’s current service life will end somewhere between December 2019 and December 2022, a situation that would likely require the Coast Guard either to extend the Polar Star’s service through further refurbishment and repair of the vessel, or to lease another icebreaker from somewhere, the report says.

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