Trump administration may hire private ship to fill Arctic ‘icebreaker gap’ by year’s end

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

The Trump White House is racing to lease an icebreaker, and one of the candidates is a ship with a notorious Alaska past owned by a Republican mega-donor. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan said he spoke to the White House national security advisor and learned the administration is considering leasing a medium-weight icebreaker for the Coast Guard to use. It may happen soon, Sullivan said at a Senate hearing last week, “like hopefully as early as the end of this month.” 

After a fire damaged the icebreaker U.S.S. Healy this summer, the U.S. is down to one working icebreaker. The Coast Guard has another being built, but it isn’t expected to be finished until 2024.

Sullivan likes the idea of leasing to fill the “icebreaker gap.” He said the U.S. needs a persistent presence in the Arctic to hold off adversaries.

RELATED: Russian intimidation of Bering Sea fishermen shows gap in Arctic investment, Sullivan says

The White House is considering ships in Finland, Sullivan said at the hearing, or “there’s another icebreaker that’s in Florida, I guess. Not really sure what it’s really doing in Florida.”

That could only describe one ship: The Aiviq, owned by Edison Chouest Offshore. It’s the only privately owned medium-weight icebreaker in the U.S., by the Coast Guard’s listing. Vessel-tracking websites show it’s docked in Tampa. 

That name may sound familiar. In 2012, the Aiviq was the vessel towing an offshore drilling rig for Shell that went aground near Kodiak.

Louisiana-based shipbuilders Edison Chouest built the Aiviq specifically for Shell’s offshore Arctic drilling project. When Shell pulled the plug on the program, the $200-million Aiviq was suddenly unemployed. Chouest pitched it to the Obama administration and to the Canadian Coast Guard to no avail.

The company’s owner and president, Gary Chouest, is a prolific campaign contributor. He and his wife have given millions to candidates — mostly Republican — and to the Republican Party.

Alaska Congressman Don Young is among the beneficiaries of that largesse. Young has received about $300,000 from the Chouest family and company executives over the years.

At a 2016 hearing, Young aggressively pushed the Coast Guard to hire the Aiviq. The Coast Guard’s second-in-command at the time insisted it wouldn’t work.

RELATED: Young promotes Chouest ship to fill ‘icebreaker gap’

“Sir, our current opinion is that ship is not suitable for military service without substantial refit,” Coast Guard Admiral Charles Michel told Young, twice.

Young called that answer “Bulls–t.”

“Military service?” Young bellowed at the hearing. “I’m talking about moving ice!”

But that was in 2016. A lot can change in four years.

Michel’s successor, Coast Guard Admiral Charles Ray, told Sen. Sullivan at Tuesday’s hearing that the Coast Guard studied the concept, following a directive from President Trump. Ray agreed with Sullivan that a leased icebreaker might serve temporary duty.

Coast Guard Vice Commandant Charles Ray testifies at a U.S. Senate hearing Dec. 8, 2020. (Alaska Public Media)

“Any leasing arrangement would not be in lieu of building our own icebreakers. This would be in addition to,” the admiral said.

“I fully agree,” Sullivan said. “In addition to, as a bridge. Couldn’t agree more.”

Sullivan did not promote any particular ship at the hearing. Sullivan spokeswoman Amanda Coyne said he had “no idea” which ship in Florida the White House was considering when he mentioned it, nor who owned it.

The Chouest family and company executives have contributed to all members of Alaska’s congressional delegation. They gave Sullivan $30,000 in 2016.

At the hearing, Sullivan also made the case that icebreakers, leased or government-owned, should be homeported in Alaska.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz

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