‘Uber for icebreakers’ idea gains traction in Congress

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420 ft. icebreaker homeported in Seattle, Wash., breaks ice in support of scientific research in the Arctic Ocean.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker homeported in Seattle, Washington, breaks ice in support of scientific research in the Arctic Ocean on August 9, 2006. (Public domain photo by Petty Officer Prentice Danner/U.S. Coast Guard)

This was the year Congress was finally going to spend some serious money to build an icebreaker. A Senate spending proposal has $750 million for a new icebreaker, which would bring the Coast Guard’s fleet to three. But that money is caught in a fight over whether to build President Donald Trump’s wall at the southern border.

Still, there’s more than one way to break ice. Some propose to use private and foreign ships to help fill the expected demand for commercial icebreaking.

Polar Institute Director Mike Sfraga of Fairbanks said it would be like Uber, but instead of a person calling for a car, it would be a commercial ship calling for the support vessels needed to transit Arctic waters.

“The idea of Uber for icebreakers, a St. Lawrence Seaway model, that could collaborate among the northern countries in making a pathway across the north — so that there’s escort, there’s search and rescue, it’s paid by fees of commerce — that might be a really good model to take a look at, because that’s the future,” Sfraga said at an Arctic round table in the U.S. Senate last week.

The Russian Arctic saw record traffic in 2018, with tankers, cruise ships and cargo ships. Russia charges for icebreaking and other services along the Northern Sea Route.

Sfraga said by 2030 or 2040, commercial ships will be more interested in  “across the top” routes, beyond the shipping lanes Russia controls.

But barriers remain for Arctic shipping. Even with years of dramatically shrinking sea ice, the travel season only lasts for days or weeks. And Sen. Lisa Murkowski says fee-based icebreakers would still need a lot of support infrastructure. She sponsored a bill last month that calls for building deepwater ports in northern Alaska.

“Not just one port but a system of Arctic ports, ports of refuge for ships in trouble and ports to send, receive and transship goods and people,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor in support of her bill. She also likened it to “Uber for icebreakers.”

Key Congress members of both parties, in the House and Senate, support building new Coast Guard icebreakers, but at least for now, that call is drowned out by the debate over security at the southern border.

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