Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries & Coast Guard: “Examining the Resources & Priorities of the U.S. Coast Guard”

In the absence of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), chairman of the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries & Coast Guard Subcommittee, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) conducted a hearing on the priorities of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).  The USCG Commandant, Adm. Paul Zukunft, testified and answered questions.

Sen. Sullivan focused the hearing on USCG Arctic infrastructure needs.  In his opening statement, Sen. Sullivan reminded the attendees about the dramatic increase in Arctic activity and heightened interest in the region, which will impact vessel traffic, law enforcement, oil spill response mechanisms, search and rescue capabilities, environmental regulations, and fisheries resource management.  He said the U.S. fleet of icebreakers is only one-third of the recommended number, and only two of the three icebreakers are in operation.

In his opening statement, Adm. Zukunft updated the subcommittee about the USCG cutter POLAR STAR, which recently completed Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica.  During the mission, the vessel broke channels through the ice, escorted petroleum and bulk freight carriers, and resupplied the U.S. base of operations at McMurdo Sound so U.S. personnel could conduct scientific research and implement the Antarctic treaty.  The POLAR STAR is the only U.S. heavy icebreaker capable of doing this work.  The Coast Guard will continue the pre-acquisition process in 2016 for procuring a new polar icebreaker, including a request for developing a proposal.

USCG will work with the coast guards of other Arctic nations through the Arctic Coast Guard Forum next year during the Arctic Council’s U.S. chairmanship. Operation Arctic Shield—which assesses the operational capabilities of cutters, vessels and aircraft in the region while strengthening relationships with state, local and tribal leaders—will continue this summer.  Adm. Zukunft also noted the medium icebreaker HEALY will continue providing a scientific research platform in the region.

Also in 2016, the USCG will be on track to complete the final of three National Security Cutters (NSC), which are used to perform off-shore missions in the Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean.  When the final NSC is in service, the USCG will prioritize the acquisition of a new Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), a vessel used for drug trafficking prevention, migration patrol, search and rescue missions, fisheries enforcement, port protection, and natural disaster response.

Adm. Zukunft also said the HEALY, one NPC, and a shore-based aviation detachment will be stationed in the Arctic region this summer.

Sen. Sullivan began the first round of questioning by raising the King Cove road issue.  Given Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s decision not to allow the road to be built in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge between King Cove and Cold Bay to improve access to medical services, he said Sec. Jewell is aware of the need for “other methods,” though did not identify any, to provide reliable transportation between these communities. As such, the USCG performed seven medivacs within the last year, most recently on Feb. 22, 2015.

Sen. Sullivan asked Adm. Zukunft about the cost of these missions and if the Department of Interior (DOI) has any plans to reimburse the USCG for the expense.  Adm. Zukunft said the King Cove medivac missions cost about $42,000 each, not including the risk to personnel and equipment, and the DOI has not contacted the Coast Guard about reimbursing these expenses.


Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked if the USCG is addressing the technical challenges to using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for disaster response, intelligence gathering, environmental research, and supply delivery.  Adm. Zukunft said the USCG UAS system is based at sea and involves prototypes.  Ten USCG pilots have worked so far with Customs and Border Patrol on disaster response and domain awareness, and the budget contains a set-aside to move forward on acquiring more UAS platforms.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) asked about USCG’s capability to respond to a pipeline spill in the Great Lakes region, noting a major pipeline there is 60 years old, is vulnerable to leaks, and could cost the region over $1 billion in the event of a severe rupture.  Adm. Zukunft said USCG requires a regional response team and dispersants to be in place, and for the operator to have the ability to secure the pipeline.

Sen. Peters said the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has problems and gaps in its regional contingency plans and asked if the USCG is “comfortable” about its ability to respond quickly.  Adm. Zukunft said, “No, I’m not comfortable,” adding that such contingency plans had not been enough to mitigate the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) asked what the USCG learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  Adm. Zukunft said that while federal agencies are the first to respond, private companies such as British Petroleum (BP) are responsible and must be held accountable.  He said the capping stack had to be designed “on the fly” during the disaster, and it was difficult to quantify how much oil was being released.  Adm. Zukunft said the USCG also learned how to integrate local communities with the response effort to build a unity of command, including commercial fishermen, other local industry leaders, and local government officials.

When asked how USCG could build a unity of command when it was dependent on BP for assistance, Adm. Zukunft said the disaster response cost $70 million to $80 million, a bill that was “handed to BP” and had to be resolved through litigation.

Sen. Sullivan asked about the phase-out of the seven 110-foot Island-class Patrol Boats in Alaska, currently stationed in Valdez, Auke Bay, Petersburg, Seward, and Homer, plus two in Ketchikan. He said the USCG’s plan is to replace the vessels with six 100-foot Fast Response Cutters (FRCs) by 2023, and noted Alaska communities are concerned that the fewer and smaller vessels will reduce USCG presence and weaken its mission.

Adm. Zukunft responded the Island-class operates at 1,800 hours per year and is limited in how it performs in sea-class, while FRCs can operate for 2,500 hours per year in more severe weather.  Running those numbers, Adm. Zukunft said Alaska will actually have 1.5 more patrol boats that are better equipped to operate further from shore in the harsh environment.  Asked if the increase in capacity matches the mission demand, Adm. Zukunft said the USCG continues to evaluate the demand as it does not know what will happen in the far north region.

“If we have a deep-water port to support FRCs, such as in Nome or Port Clarence, that could change,” said Adm. Zukunft.  “Increased activity in the Arctic could reallocate those resources, and we will shift them as necessary.”

Sen. Sullivan reiterated that the increase in human activity in the Arctic is happening now, not something pending in the future, and this is a national issue as non-Arctic nations become more interested in the region.  He asked for the USCG’s perspective on the “most pressing issue” regarding the Arctic, and how the USCG is setting the priorities amid the decline in funding resources.

Adm. Zukunft said the USCG has four priorities: 1) safety of human life at sea, 2) environmental compliance, including oil spill response and safe drilling mechanisms, 3) migration of fisheries stocks in the region, and 4) domain awareness.

Adm. Zukunft said the USCG continues to work with the National Science Foundation and NOAA to map an area twice the size of California, beyond the traditional Exclusive Economic Zone.  He stressed the need to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty so the U.S. may operate in the “global commons,” adding that China is conducting scientific research in what would otherwise be U.S. waters.  Sen. Sullivan did not respond, though he has voiced opposition to the treaty in the past.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said the Office of Management and Budget needed to recognize icebreakers as a national priority, not just for the USCG.  She asked about including an icebreaker in the Navy budget.

Adm. Zukunft said that would not be unprecedented as at least half a dozen federal agencies have equities in the Arctic.  He added that while the U.S. has eight times the gross national product of Russia, the Russians have 40 icebreakers and another 15 under construction; the U.S. has only two functioning vessels.  Sen. Cantwell said 4-5 years ago the Senate could not get the USCG to be up front about this question, and that she will continue to work with Sen. Sullivan and Sen. Lisa Murkowski on funding options.

Sen. Sullivan asked if the USCG had other ideas for funding icebreaker maintenance and construction that Congress hasn’t considered.  Adm. Zukunft said Congress must consider all of the different agencies that have a stake in icebreakers: NOAA, U.S. Arctic Research Commission, DOI, Department of Homeland Security, National Science Foundation, and Department of Defense.  He said Congress must remember that the icebreakers will need to be environmentally compliant under 2017 regulations.  Adm. Zukunft added the initial priority is to provide research in the region, especially regarding how to use command and control to respond to an oil spill, and how to use an icebreaker as a warship or law enforcement platform in the region in the event of a security threat.

Sen. Sullivan referred to a recent article written by Mead Treadwell (found here) regarding commercial shipping activity near St. Lawrence Island, and asked if the USCG is considering a long-term vision of these changing resources in the region.

Adm. Zukunft said USCG is working with the coast guards of other Arctic nations to look at threats in the region beyond those posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  These include threats of life at sea, threats to the ways of life for indigenous people, and threats to the environment.  The nations need to work collectively on these issues and agree on protocols while maintaining an awareness of what else is in the Arctic domain at any given time, he said, stressing the need for the U.S. to think globally about the Arctic.

In closing, Sen. Sullivan asked Adm. Zukunft if he was aware of an unintended consequence of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 in that it required the survey and classification of fishing vessels greater than 50 feet long in order to remain in class, which increased the cost of vessel construction, and cost some owners to postpone replacements or build smaller vessels.  Sen. Sullivan believes this is the opposite of what the law was meant to do.

Sen. Sullivan said if costs go up and safety and the strength of vessels actually decrease, perhaps Congress should look at fixing these regulations.  Adm. Zukunft said he was not aware of this problem, even though the USCG works closely with the regional fishery management councils and conducts other outreach efforts.