Construction of a Second U.S. Coast Guard Heavy Icebreaker (GLIB) Stationed on the Great Lakes

GOAL: Seek legislation in the 115th Congress authorizing construction of a second Great Lakes heavy icebreaker (GLIB).

BACKGROUND: The winters of 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 were the most severe experienced on the Lakes since the early 1990s. During the winter of 2013/2014, 92.5 percent of the Lakes were ice-covered. The winter of 2014/2015 wasn’t much better; ice coverage peaked at 88.8 percent.

The near arctic conditions all but paralyzed the Great Lakes navigation system. The cargos cancelled because of ice those two winters cost the nation 6,000 jobs and $1.1 billion in economic activity. A few more delays or cancellations and the loses would have been even greater. Several steel mills and power plants were running dangerously low on raw materials and fuel.

Ice is a fact of life on the Lakes, in even a mild winter. That’s why the U.S. Coast Guard has nine icebreaking assets assigned to the GLNS. However, six of the U.S. Coast Guard’s nine Great Lakes icebreakers are rapidly nearing the end of their useful lives. The Coast Guard has begun a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), but that will take several years to complete and will require the vessel being modernized to be out of service for an ice season. Two other vessels tasked with icebreaking, while newer, were not designed for that mission, so have major limitations. Only construction of a twin to the MACKINAW, the new heavy icebreaker launched in 2006, will ensure Great Lakes shipping can continue during the long ice season. During the winter of 2013/2014 U.S.-flag lakers suffered more than $6 million in damages to their hulls because the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards did not have enough assets available to keep the shipping lanes open.  Many vessels delayed their sailing the next season rather than risk more ice damage.

Cargos that move during the ice season include iron ore for steel production, coal for power generation, limestone and cement for the construction industry and liquid-bulk products such as fuels and heating oil. For example, during the 2013/2014 ice season (December 16 – April 15), shipments of iron ore, coal, and limestone topped 10 million tons, or 9 percent of the annual total for the Lakes that year. U.S.-flag lakers hauled 83 percent of those tons.

Shipping must continue during the ice season for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the companies that rely on Great Lakes shipping to deliver their raw materials must keep stockpiling costs to the bare minimum. Also, during periods of peak demand, customers are using virtually all the product as it is mined and shipped (“current production” in industry terms). There is little excess capacity at the mines and quarries, so production cannot be ramped up significantly during the summer. When the economy is strong, the Great Lakes fleet has little reserve capacity and cannot deliver customers’ annual requirements unless able to operate in ice.

A second heavy icebreaker is also critically needed to offset the downsizing of Canada’s icebreaking fleet on the Lakes. Whereas Canada once had seven icebreakers stationed on the Lakes, it now has but two. It is not easy to understand this decision. There are more Canadian lakers than American, and they operate in ice, but are assisted mostly by U.S. icebreakers.

Reliable icebreaking also benefits shipping through the St. Lawrence Seaway. Although the Seaway closes in late December, oceangoing vessels need to know icebreaking assets are reliable; otherwise, they will not come to the Lakes for those last cargos. The risk of being trapped on the Lakes over the winter is too great.

Once a new MACKINAW is authorized and funded, construction can begin almost immediately. The new MACKINAW has proven quite effective. There is no need to make significant modifications to the design or specifications.

Progress has been made. The House of Representatives’ Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 authorizes the Commandant to design and build a new icebreaker for its Great Lakes fleet. In 2016, the Senate’s Committee Report on the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill includes $2 million for initial survey and design work for a vessel that is at least as capable as the current MACKINAW.