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Should Alaska build its own Arctic icebreaker?

Patti Epler

GIRDWOOD -- Anchorage Sen. Lesil McGuire thinks the state should build its own Polar-class icebreaker, much like the U.S. Coast Guard uses for Arctic patrols.

The Coast Guard's two "heavy" icebreakers are out of commission right now, and the service is relying on one "medium" icebreaker -- primarily a scientific research vessel -- for anything that's needed in the Arctic.

The problem? Repairing or retrofitting an icebreaker costs hundreds of millions of dollars. Building a new one? Even more. Congress has been reluctant to commission a new ship due to the high cost. An April report by the Congressional Research Service put the pricetag of a new icebreaker at about $1 billion, $500 million to fix up one of the existing ships enough to last another 25 years. The heavy icebreakers have been in service more than 30 years.

McGuire, addressing the Arctic Imperative Conference that ended Tuesday night, called the icebreaker a "key part of the Arctic," saying the Alaska Legislature should pay for one itself, using some of the billions of dollars the state has socked away in various budget reserve accounts. The ship could be used for search and rescue operations and help in oil spill response, among other things.

It's one of those big Alaska dreams, the kind Wally Hickel used to propose. McGuire didn’t address who would operate the ship or what exactly it would do when it wasn't needed to save a tour boat trapped in the ice.

Meantime, Shell Oil, which is still hoping to pursue offshore oil development in Alaska's Arctic, has moved ahead with its own icebreaking vessels designed and built specifically to support exploration and drilling.

Shell's Arctic venture "is not financed by anybody but Shell," Pete Slaiby, Shell Alaska's vice president, said at the conference this week.

Especially when it comes to an oil spill, Shell is essentially on its own and is responsible for responding to and cleaning up a spill, Slaiby said.

"The Coast Guard can't help," he said. "The role of the Coast Guard is not to recover oil. That burden falls on the operator and the responsibility for industry is simple: We must invest in new equipment."

To that end, Shell is building its second icebreaking support ship, now called Hull 247. It is being constructed at a shipyard in Louisiana and the company expects to "splash it" by the end of the year.

Shell has applied for federal permits to drill in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the summers of 2012 and 2013, so the new ship and its sister, the Nanuq, will support those operations, said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for the company in Alaska.

"Make no mistake, this boat is being build purposely for Alaska," Smith said.

The 360-foot vessel has icebreaking capability even though the drilling operations are planned for the open water season. The company wants the ship on hand in case ice moves in unexpectedly, Smith said.

It will also be used to set anchors for the drill ship and to hold oil spill response gear, like smaller skimming vessels.

The Nanuq is three years old and the new boat is even more technologically advanced, he said. Smith said the company has spent more than $100 million each for the ships.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.