New U.S. spending bill brings icebreaker funding back

The budget includes $675 million for new U.S. icebreakers.

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The Coast Guard Cutter Healy patrols the Arctic Ocean during a Coast Guard Research and Development Center joint civil and federal search and rescue exercise near Oliktok Point, Alaska, July 13, 2015. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst / U.S. Coast Guard)

The U.S. government’s $330 billion spending bill, released late Wednesday evening, includes funding for new icebreakers.

The budget includes a total of $675 million for new vessels, with $655 million for the first icebreaker and $20 million for the second.

“I’m very pleased,” Rep. John Garamendi, a Democratic member of the House subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, told ArcticToday. “I think we’re going to be in very, very good shape to get the first polar security cutter under construction.”

As the Arctic changes and the Coast Guard increasingly sees the region in terms of security, “a polar security cutter is absolutely essential,” Garamendi says, emphasizing a new term for such ice-capable Coast Guard vessels.

[Why the US needs polar security cutters for the 21st century]

This amount is less than the $750 million requested in the President’s budget and passed in the Senate version of the budget; the House version of the budget, on the other hand, slashed funding altogether.

But, Rep. Garamendi says, this budget should be enough to complete the first icebreaker, which also received funding in a previous appropriations bill in order to begin the design process, and to start on a second.

Although the funding is less than originally requested, Alaska’s lone representative in the House, Republican Don Young, says, “the included funds still represent huge progress from previous years in recapitalizing our polar security cutter fleet.”

“This new investment will be incredibly important for construction on our first new polar security cutter in multiple decades,” Young says. “I’m confident this will only lead to greater investment in the program as we move forward.”

The design and construction process for the first icebreaker is much more expensive and time-consuming because the U.S. has not built a heavy icebreaker in four decades.

The only heavy icebreaker in the U.S. fleet broke down once more on its annual mission to Antarctica.

“We absolutely have to have additional heavy icebreakers,” Garamendi says.

“Unfortunately, we are doing them one at a time. We ought to be doing two initially and then another two, so that we have a total of six to operate in the Arctic Ocean in the years ahead,” Garamendi says.

“But I’m happy that we’re at least getting started with the first one.”

Such a vessel would be important in commercial and emergency rescue scenarios, he says.

“We also need to project America’s position in the Arctic,” Garamendi says. “We need to be there. We’re not there, well, somebody else will be.”

Lawmakers are prepared to pass the spending bill quickly and send it to President Trump to sign in order to avert another government shutdown. The Washington Post reports that President Donald Trump is prepared to sign the bill, which runs 1,768 pages long — but he has changed his mind on signing such bills in the past.

The story has been updated to include comments from Alaska Rep. Don Young.