Efforts to boost US interests in the Arctic have taken another step forward with congressional approval of six polar icebreakers in the bipartisan Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2020. The legislation now heads to President Donald Trump for signing.
Icebreakers are critical to the U.S. presence in the Arctic to protect American interests in polar regions, gather data for scientific research and to respond to oil spills in very remote areas, as well as U.S. commercial interests in shipping.
Senators Marie Cantwell, D-WA; Roger Wicker, R-MS; and Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both R-Alaska, led the way for passage of the legislation in the Senate. Earlier last week the bill was approved by the House.
“The reality is, there is a race on for the Arctic passageway, and we need to be ready,” said Cantwell. “This formal authorization of six polar icebreakers will send a strong message to the rest of the world: the United States is showing up in the Arctic.” With three of the icebreakers designated to homeport in Seattle, there is opportunity for us to continue to pave the way in Arctic exploration scientific research, and protecting our nation’s foreign policy interests,” Cantwell said.
The U.S. currently has just two polar icebreakers, Polar Star and Healy, but due to a fire aboard the Healy this past summer only the Polar Star is currently operational. Russia, by comparison, has 53 icebreakers, Finland has 10, Canada and Sweden have seven, and Denmark has four.
Along with the investment in the icebreakers themselves, the Coast Guard bill will establish an Arctic Shipping Federal Advisory Committee made up of representatives of the Coast Guard, Defense Department, Secretary of Transportation, the maritime and shipping industry, Labor, Alaska Native people and representatives of the states of Alaska and Washington. The committee provision, championed by Murkowski, has as its goal coordination of U.S. activity in the Arctic for safe and efficient transportation and open up trade opportunities in the Arctic.