The Coast Guard is down to two working icebreakers, and the sole heavy icebreaker still on the job is due to retire before a replacement can hit the water.
That “icebreaker gap” was the subject of a hearing in the U.S. House on Tuesday. The hearing turned testy when Congressman Don Young pressed the Coast Guard to consider leasing an icebreaker from the private sector, from a company whose owners happen to be big contributors to Young’s campaign.
Everybody on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, at least the few who attended the hearing, seemed to agree that the nation needs icebreakers. A Senate bill already includes $1 billion for one icebreaker. But building it would take a decade. The country would likely have no heavy icebreaker for three to six years, hampering potential ship traffic in the Far North.
Alaska Congressman Don Young confronted the Coast Guard witness with a suggestion, and the hearing took a very specific turn.
“I’ll get the elephant out in the room, in a sense,” he said. “During the Shell activity, there were anchor-layer, ice-capable ships.”
As he and others continued to describe it, it became clear they were talking about one ship: the Aiviq. That’s a huge, heavy tug, owned by the shipbuilding firm Edison Chouest and built specifically for Shell’s Arctic work. Young wanted to know why the Coast Guard couldn’t hire that ship to break ice.
“Would you be interested in that, admiral, if that was to take place?” Young asked. “I know you’ve got the proposal on your desk, by the way. It’s already been laid on your desk and it’s an automatic no. Why?”
Coast Guard Vice-Commandant Charles Michel said his boss checked out that ship, in person, but the admiral said the vessel is not suitable. He offered to explain, but Young cut him off.
“Wait a minute. Stop!” Young told him “You think so, but if the shipbuilder said ‘I can take and meet your requirements,’ with the bow it has now, tungsten steel and the power to do it …”
The admiral wasn’t budging. He said all Coast Guard icebreakers have to operate as military ships, able to enforce the law and assert national sovereignty.
“Sir, our current opinion is that ship is not suitable for military service, without substantial refit,” the admiral said.
“That’s what I call, Mr. Chairman, a bull—- answer.” Young said. “Military service. I’m talking about moving ice.”
The chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., took up Young’s line of questioning, challenging the admiral to explain why it couldn’t use a private icebreaker.
Young never named the ship, and in the hallway after the hearing, he wouldn’t provide the name of the ship he said was available, preferring to stick to generalities.
“I don’t know. But there are ships available and all I’m saying is let’s use them,” he said.
Young’s spokesman later confirmed that the specific ice-capable ship Young was describing was the Aiviq. The 360-foot tug is worth about $200 million, according to trade publications. It presumably has some spare time, since Shell canceled its Arctic project. Aiviq’s owner, Edison Chouest, is a privately held, family-run company that is a major source of campaign contributions to Young. The Chouest family and employees have contributed more than $250,000 to Young over the past decade, and Steve Lindbeck, a Democrat running for Young’s seat, has already made an issue of it. Rep. Hunter, who chaired today’s subcommittee meeting, is also a favorite of the Chouest family, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Young’s spokesman, Matt Shuckerow, said Young was just using the Aiviq as an example, a possible solution to the icebreaker gap.
“The Coast Guard says there’s only one available option and that’s building a new ship,” Shuckerow said. “It’s Congress’ responsibility to look at all options. As the Congressman has said time and again he believes we should look at everything on the table.”
Shuckerow said Young would be happy to talk to other U.S. shipbuilders.
A spokesperson for Edison Chouest did not respond to phone messages by deadline.
By the way, If the name Aiviq rings a bell, this was the tug pulling the ill-fated Shell rig that went aground near Kodiak in 2012.