President Obama has requested money from Congress for new icebreaker ships for the Coast Guard, and would also like to accelerate the acquisition for an already-planned new icebreaker.
This request comes for a few reasons: the warming of the Arctic waters and the coastline around Alaska is increasing the amount of ship traffic through the area, a large amount of untapped resources are available in the Artic area, the US has fallen behind many other nations in icebreaking ability.
Russia, one of the top competitors for the resources in the Artic circle, currently has about 40 icebreakers, with plans to add almost a dozen more. The United States currently has only three icebreakers able to break the Arctic ice; the USCGC Healy, USCGC Polar Star, and USCGC Polar Sea. Both the Polar Star and Polar Sea were commissioned in the 70's, and are both nearing the end of their service life. The Polar Sea has actually been in Inactive Commission since 2010, awaiting $56 million in refitting and maintenance to allow it to serve for another 10 years or $400 million for another 25 years.
No matter whether the United States government allows the harvesting of resources in northern Alaska and off the Alaskan coast, these icebreakers are still desperately needed. The increased traffic from the shipping lanes through the ice-packed waters and increased potential for shipping accidents or spills and leaks means that the need for rescue, cleanup, or just escorts is much higher, and will only increase as more ships are able to complete the trip. Last year the first un-escorted cargo ship made a delivery from the province of Quebec to China via the Northwest Passage.
The current plans for the Coast Guard's icebreaker fleet involve acquiring a new icebreaker in 2022, President Obama's plan would move that up to 2020. Both of Alaska's senators, Lisa Murkowski (R) and Dan Sullivan (R), were cautiously supportive of the President's plan to increase the number of icebreakers in the USCG's fleet, noting that it is a good first step and that the President should also issue a comprehensive Arctic strategy involving the military presence, natural resources, shipping, trade, and civilian's access to infrastructure.