Congress bought a stopgap icebreaker for the Arctic, but its $1.2 trillion bill has no money to build a new one

The Aiviq in Unalaska, August 2016. (Sarah Hansen/KUCB)

The U.S. Senate passed a $1.2 trillion spending bill this weekend and President Biden signed it. Tucked into the sprawling bill is a big item for Juneau, and for the owner of a ship with some Alaska history.

The legislation includes $125 million to buy a privately owned icebreaker that the U.S. Coast Guard plans to base in Alaska’s capital city.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said he’s “pretty darn excited about it.” 

“This is really good news for Alaska. Really good news for America. And certainly good news for Southeast and the Juneau area,” he said in a call to reporters Thursday.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has tried for years to get the money to buy the icebreaker, called the Aiviq. But the Coast Guard needs many more.

The Aiviq is intended to serve as a stopgap while the Coast Guard builds a new fleet of icebreakers, called Polar Security Cutters, and this year’s spending bill does not help with that. President Biden requested $170 million in this year’s budget to build those ships, but Congress eliminated the funding.

Still, Sen. Lisa Murkowski cast the bill as good news for the program to build America’s future icebreaking fleet.

“They did cut it, but they didn’t kill it. And that’s what we were up against,” she said.

Murkowski said she’s secured federal money for the polar-class vessels since 2017 and the program now has $1.8 billion, to build the first three icebreakers. But COVID-19 and supply chain disruptions delayed the construction timeline, and Murkowski said the money was at risk. Congress could have clawed back some of the icebreaker construction fund and diverted it to other priorities. She said she was able to protect all but $150 million.

“Given the work that they can do in this next fiscal year, they’re able to do that with the funds that they have and not get setback,” she said.

A new icebreaker could bring 190 Coast Guard personnel and their families to Juneau. The Coast Guard estimates that the Aiviq could be ready for use in 18 months, but it could take up to seven years to make it fully operational.

The Aiviq is owned by a subsidiary of Louisiana-based Edison Chouest. The company built it to tow a drilling rig to the Arctic as part of Shell’s offshore project in the Chukchi Sea. The endeavor suffered multiple mishaps in 2012, culminating with the rig breaking free of the Aiviq in the Gulf of Alaska and running aground. When Shell gave up on drilling in the Chukchi, the Aiviq needed a new job.

The Coast Guard leadership in 2016 refused requests to buy or lease the Aiviq, saying it wasn’t suitable. But now, the Coast Guard commandant says the ship would be useful while the service builds the Polar Security Cutters.

“In the near term, the purchase of a commercially available icebreaker would increase U.S. presence in the Arctic,” Admiral Linda Fagan said Wednesday in an annual address.

She said her “top acquisition priority” this year is to begin construction of the polar cutters.

This story has been updated to show that the Senate passed the bill and the president signed it.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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