One of America's two icebreaker ships is falling apart. Trump's wall could block funding for a new one.

As climate change opens areas of the Arctic to shipping, the Coast Guard's need for new icebreaker ships has grown. But funding could get pushed back again.
Image: Polar Star, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, completes ice drills in the Arctic
Polar Star, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, completes ice drills in the Arctic.US Coast Guard / Reuters file

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By Nicholas Kusnetz, InsideClimate News

This article has been jointly published by NBCNews.com and InsideClimate News, a nonprofit, independent news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment.

The U.S. military's only heavy-duty icebreaker suffered more equipment breakdowns during its mission to Antarctica this season, adding urgency to the calls for Congress to approve long-delayed funding to replace the aging polar fleet.

As the icebreaker Polar Star led a supply mission to a research station in early January, its crew faced power outages that forced it to shut down the ship's power plant and reboot the electrical system. Leaks forced the Coast Guard to send divers into the icy water to repair the seal around the propeller shaft. And one of two systems that provide drinking water for the crew also failed, the Coast Guard said in a news release.

In its previous trip to Antarctica, the crew scrambled to patch a leak in the engine room that at one point was pouring 20 gallons a minute into the compartment.

"If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the U.S. Coast Guard is left without a self-rescue capability," the Coast Guard said. The Healy, a less powerful ship, and the Polar Star are the military's only icebreakers, and the Polar Star is 12 years past the end of its life expectancy.

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InsideClimate News reported late last year on the decadeslong effort to build new icebreakers as a warming Arctic increases ship traffic and access to natural resources. Even as the ice melts, unpredictable floes can still trap ships. The opening of the Arctic has also emerged as a national security priority for the Navy. While Congress has put off funding for new icebreakers year after year, Russia has built out a fleet of more than 40.

The future of the Coast Guard's icebreaker program may now depend on President Donald Trump's demand for funding for a border wall and how Congress responds.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Getting new icebreakers is absolutely imperative," said Nyx Cangemi, Coast Guard spokesman, adding that it will take at least five years to complete a new icebreaker after funding is approved.

'We Will Not Have the Funding'

Democrats on Wednesday released a budget negotiating document warning that the icebreaker program is among a list of top priorities that "we will not have the funding to address if the president insists we set aside $5.7 billion for border barriers." The Coast Guard's most recent review determined that it needs six new icebreakers, with $750 million requested to build one new ship.

"The U.S. just simply is woefully behind in terms of our planning and our vision for what is now a new ocean opening, a fourth coast," said Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center, a research group in Washington.

Sfraga said that protecting commerce and national security interests in the Arctic is emerging as a critical issue in coming decades, and that Congress should spend the money for a new icebreaker no matter what happens in the negotiations over a border wall. "From the perspective of our nation's defense," he said, "that's not a lot of money."

'Uber for Icebreakers'?

In December, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, proposed legislation that could provide some additional ship support in the Arctic. The bill aims to bolster the nation's presence in the Arctic Ocean with what she characterized as "Uber for icebreakers." It would create a development corporation that, among other things, would set up a system for contracting with private icebreakers and working with foreign governments to use their ships.

Sfraga said the system is a good idea whether or not the Coast Guard gets new icebreakers. He said nations have to work together to ensure the Arctic is safe for commerce when and if shipping companies decide to begin operating there regularly.

"We should probably scope that out now," he said, "versus being reactive in a couple of decades."