Polar icebreakers are a looming crisis

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen was right when, in his final State of the Coast Guard speech on Feb. 12, he suggested that the U.S. needs to develop a policy toward the Arctic that will guide decisions on what to do about the country’s aging polar icebreaking fleet.

So far, despite several studies and congressional hearings, no policy consensus has emerged. Allen warned that we’re reaching the “tipping point” on making a decision on the future of the USCG’s three polar icebreakers, two of which have exceed their 30-year service lives. He called the situation a “looming crisis.”

Allen said that although the Arctic is losing a lot of ice to global warming, “it’s not ice free” and icebreakers are still needed to assure open shipping routes. In the meantime, other nations are putting a high priority on exploring this area for its potential year-round shipping.

No funds were requested in President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget, however, for lack of an Arctic policy, he said.

Replacing the ships would cost nearly $1 billion each. Shipyards like Bath Iron Works in Maine would likely benefit from newbuild contracts.

Congress has a fresh opportunity to break the impasse. Let’s hope they do.

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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