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Increased Arctic Presence Would Put Pressure on Coast Guard Budget, Ice Breaker Fleet

The U.S. Coast Guard will need to expand its presence in the Arctic year-round as oil and gas exploration and general maritime activity increase in the region, researchers say, but paying for such a presence is likely to be difficult as Congress wrestles with austere budgets.

The resources the Coast Guard now has to respond to an oil spill are not sufficient for the Arctic, and its efforts to support planning and mitigation for a spill without a dedicated budget “are admirable but inadequate,” the National Research Council said in a recent report.

The Department of Homeland Security has made its Arctic presence and strategy a priority, but funding shortfalls have kept it from shoring up its ice breaker fleet to the level officials say is needed to carry out duties in the region.

The White House has requested about $1 billion for Coast Guard acquisitions in fiscal 2015, a figure that is nearly $300 million less than the fiscal 2014 enacted level.

The Coast Guard was able to refurbish one of its large ice breakers, and Adm. Robert J. Papp, the Coast Guard’s commandant, has said that reviving its dry-docked sister ship may be the best option in light of tight budgets. The service has sought a new vessel that would combine polar-class ice-breaking prowess with space for scientists who want to hitch a ride, but the likelihood of an appropriation that would cover those costs while leaving enough left over for other priorities is slim.

The Coast Guard already has experience responding to oil-related emergencies in the Arctic, though — it joined in the response to the grounding of Shell’s Kulluk rig in late 2012. The Coast Guard issued a report in early April critical of Shell’s plans for towing its rig.

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