Congress drops funding to purchase used icebreaker for Coast Guard

A late change in the Senate to the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package passed by Congress last month deleted funding to purchase a privately owned icebreaker that the U.S. Coast Guard said could be homeported in Juneau.

A $150 million authorization for the Coast Guard to purchase the vessel was removed from the bill that had to pass by Dec. 23 to avoid a government shutdown. The bill passed the House that final day, after winning Senate approval earlier in the week.

The removal of the funding was disappointing, both of Alaska’s senators said.

“It’s very frustrating to all of us,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski during a news conference Dec. 23.

Murkowski described the cut as a “temporary setback” and said she will continue to push for its advancement in the future.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, who voted against the spending bill, cited the removal of funding among the reasons he objected to a bill.

“This was a priority for the Alaska delegation,” he stated. “This decision could further set back our nation’s ability to provide a persistent presence in the Arctic for years.”

Congress approved funding two years ago for three new heavy Coast Guard icebreakers, with the first new ship under construction in a Mississippi shipyard, with delivery scheduled for 2025. Supporters of buying the used ship said it could help meet the Coast Guard’s needs until the new icebreakers are delivered.

According to an explanation of the deleted funding, released by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Appropriations, the committee was concerned with the potential cost to convert the icebreaker for Coast Guard operations.

The $150 million allocation was intended for the Coast Guard to purchase an “available icebreaker.” The funding was part of a years-long effort to purchase the now 10-year-old Aiviq icebreaker from Edison Chouest Offshore, a Louisiana-based marine transportation and services business. The 360-foot-long Aiviq was built for Shell’s Arctic waters exploration in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas, which ended in 2012 without finding commercial quantities of oil.

The congressional appropriation has been controversial because Coast Guard leaders have said the Aiviq is “not suitable for military service without substantial refit,” and lawmakers at the forefront of seeking the purchase — including the late U.S. Rep. Don Young — received significant campaign contributions from Edison Chouest Offshore.

Sullivan, who received a $27,000 contribution from the company, said the $150 million authorization included money for upgrading the vessel to Coast Guard standards.

Edison Chouest reports the Aiviq is capable of breaking ice up to 3 feet thick; the Coast Guard medium icebreaker Healy can break through ice three times as thick by backing up and ramming the ice.


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