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Arctic icebreaker funded in Obama 2013 budget

Alex DeMarban
U.S. Coast Guard photo

Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich is into more than just blowing up ships. He also wants a new one built. That'd be the icebreaker President Obama supported with a multi-million-dollar proposal in the $3.8 trillion 2013 budget he released Monday, according to a news release from Begich.  

"It appears this year's dramatic fuel delivery to Nome got the White House's attention because the president's budget provides the U.S. Coast Guard $8 million to plan and design a new sorely needed icebreaker for America's Arctic," Begich said in a written statement.   

"I've made this proposal several times in the past three years and it looks like we're finally, but slowly, on the path toward new ships," said Begich, who grabbed headlines last year with his call for sinking the stateless vessel Bangun Perkasa that was accused of illegal high-seas fishing.

Demands that the U.S. build an icebreaker have multiplied in recent years as countries take advantage of new global shipping routes and eye the lucrative oil, gas and mineral resources the melting region promises. The Coast Guard operates only a medium-duty icebreaker, the Healy, which is not even home-ported in the Arctic, worrying critics who say the country isn't prepared as the race for resources ramps up in the Far North.  

The Coast Guard plans to have two operational icebreakers next year -- the U.S. once operated eight, according to National Defense Magazine. It also wants to build several new cutters, including one for Alaska to deal with increasing activity in the Bering Strait, according to the report.

"Obama's 2013 budget also provides $6.1 million to the Coast Guard to recapitalize and expand helicopter hangars and aviation refueling facilities in Alaska," the article notes.

In October, Begich introduced legislation to address the nation's shortage of icebreakers by requiring the Coast Guard to operate at least two heavy-duty icebreakers and further boost its presence in Alaska.

Two months later, Begich said that Nome's fuel-delivery problem "drives home the nation's need for a strengthened presence in the Arctic. It underscores the reality that despite seasonal reductions in the Arctic ice pack, we still need more icebreaking capacity."

North to the future, Uncle Sam

The Coast Guard continues to assess its plans for the Arctic, said Kip Wadlow, a Coast Guard spokesman based in Juneau. Among the looming decisions is where to locate an Arctic Coast Guard base. Nome and Barrow are considered the top candidates.

And Begich's congressional colleague, Rep. Don Young, has urged the Coast Guard to focus its icebreaking efforts in Alaska. The home port of Coast Guard icebreakers has long been in Washington state because of the ships' focus on Antarctica, where they supported the U.S. research center at McMurdo Station.

"It's crucially important," Young said December. "The action today is the Arctic, not Antarctica."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com