Federal budget bill includes money for Coast Guard icebreaker to be based in Alaska

Money to purchase an icebreaker for the U.S. Coast Guard to be based in Juneau is in a pending federal defense bill more than a year after similar funding was dropped at the last minute from another budget bill, members of Alaska’s congressional delegation said on Thursday.

The pending Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which is part of a broader federal budget bill, includes $125 million to buy an icebreaker to add to the Coast Guard’s meager fleet, the delegation members said.

“This is really good news for Alaska, good news for America, and certainly good news for Southeast Alaska and the Juneau area,” U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said in a telephone news conference.

The Coast Guard currently has only two icebreakers capable of operating in the Arctic: the 399-foot Polar Star, commissioned in 1976 and working mostly in Antarctica, and the 420-foot Healy, commissioned in 1999, and used in Arctic waters off Alaska and beyond. The Healy, homeported in Seattle, is commonly used to support scientific missions, but it also is employed in search-and-rescue missions and other Arctic work.

Although the budget bill has yet to pass, members of Alaska’s congressional delegation called inclusion of the icebreaker money an important milestone.

“Over the last eight years, I have overseen over a billion and half dollars towards the Polar Security Cutter Program (PSC) so that we can strategically compete in the Arctic,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a statement issued by all three members. “Through the purchase of this Commercially Available Icebreaker, and by protecting against further cuts to the PSC Program, our icebreaker fleet is back on the right track. I have elevated this to the highest priority within the White House and Congress — and I won’t rest until our icebreaker fleet is the envy of the Arctic.”

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, agreed on its importance.


“It’s never been more essential for the United States to be a leader in the Arctic, and this is a major step in that direction,” Peltola said in the statement.

Efforts to boost the Coast Guard’s icebreaking capabilities have been underway for several years.

The Coast Guard is in the process of building a new polar-class icebreaker, but that is expected to take several years. The purchase of an icebreaker already available on the commercial market would help build Coast Guard capabilities in the shorter-term interim, supporters say.

The Coast Guard estimates that it will take six to seven years to get a purchased icebreaker fully operational for Alaska and Arctic missions, according to the delegation. But Sullivan said he hopes the timeline can be speedier than that.

There is a specific ship that the Coast Guard is considering buying: the Aiviq, owned by Edison Chouest.

The Aiviq has a history in Alaska.

The ship was contracted by Royal Dutch Shell as a support vessel in the company’s unsuccessful $7 billion attempt a decade ago to explore for oil in Arctic waters off Alaska. The Aiviq was the ship towing the Kulluk drill rig across the Gulf of Alaska during an end-of-year storm in 2012. Ultimately, the Kulluk broke away from the Aiviq and grounded on New Year’s Eve near the Kodiak Archipelago. A Coast Guard investigation cited problems with the Aiviq’s winch system. Shell, after spending billions of dollars acquiring leases in federal territory in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and billions more attempting to drill wells, in 2015 abandoned the offshore Arctic program.

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.