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

GOAL: Seek legislation in the 116TH Congress funding construction of a second Great Lakes heavy icebreaker (GLIB).

BACKGROUND: Three of the past five winters have been so severe that the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards have been unable to meet the needs of commerce.  The cargos delayed and cancelled have totaled in the millions of tons and cost the economy much-need jobs and business revenue.

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 were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The Coast Guard initiated a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), and to date four of the six 140-foot-long icebreaking tugs have been modernized.  Two more will undergo SLEP and the program will wrap in the summer of 2020.

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 2005, 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 2017/2018 ice season (December 16 – April 15), U.S-flag lakers carried 9.2 million tons of cargo, or 11 percent of their 2018 total.

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.  Canada has acknowledged the need to bolster its icebreaking forces and has acquired additional assets, but it is not certain any of these hulls will be assigned to the Lakes.

Reliable icebreaking does benefit 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 funded, construction can begin almost immediately.  The new Mackinaw has proven quite effective.  There is no need to make significant modifications to its design or specifications.  Furthermore, the upgrades incorporated into the new MACKINAW can then be made when the existing MACKINAW undergoes its service life extension at some point in the future.

Progress has been made.  The House of Representatives’ Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 authorized the Commandant to design and build a new icebreaker for its Great Lakes fleet and $10 million has been appropriated for design of the vessel.