Infrastructure News

One new Arctic icebreaker, few places to dock it

Icebreaker towing cargo ship through thick ice-field. Panoramic image made from 8 photos.

During last fall’s election campaign, Canada’s federal Liberal party promised to cancel the contract to buy F-35 fighter jets and use the savings to fund icebreakers, but the new government now says it plans on building just one icebreaker, a heavy duty model budgeted at $1.3 billion.

Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia says it would be more effective to use the $1.3 billion to build three medium duty icebreakers to start replacing Canada’s aging icebreaking fleet, as three ships would offer “more support for shipping companies, communities, search-and-rescue, and science.”

Byers doesn’t know why the Liberals are sticking to the Conservative plan, one he says dates back to 1985.

“Presumably they’ve decided that it’s easier to implement existing plans rather than reevaluate them,” he said. “But that only works if the existing plans are good plans.”

Hunter Tootoo, Nunavut’s MP and minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, has justified the new icebreaker plan, noting that “there is a fleet of six icebreakers that come up to the North every summer.” Five of those ships entered service in the late 1970s or 1980s; one, the CCGS Louis S. St. Laurent – a heavy icebreaker that the new ship, named the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, will replace – entered service in 1968.

Last summer, unusually heavy ice stretched Canada’s icebreaking fleet beyond its capacity. The icebreaker Amundsen had to be reassigned by the Coast Guard from its scientific mission researching climate change toward escort duties instead. The Amundsen assisted ships that were resupplying communities along Hudson Bay who were in danger of running out of goods.

Nunavut, where the new ship will do much of its summer sailing, does not have a place for icebreakers to dock or refuel.

The new icebreaker slated for construction by Seaspan Marine Corp. of British Columbia won’t be delivered until at least 2022 and a construction contract has not yet been awarded to the company, according to the Coast Guard. When asked in a Feb. 12 interview why the new government still wants Seaspan to build the ship, Tootoo didn’t answer directly, but said the facility is building all the non-combat ships for Canada. The polar icebreaker will be built after the Coast Guard’s offshore fisheries and science vessels, the navy’s joint supply ships and the Coast Guard’s offshore oceanographic science vessel.

Building all these ships will provide “stable work over the next decade and beyond” for the Vancouver shipyard, according to Seaspan’s website.

Nunavut, where the new ship will do much of its summer sailing, does not have a place for icebreakers to dock or refuel. A wharf at Nanisivik, formerly used to service a nickel mine near the community of Arctic Bay, is being refurbished by contractors hired by the government to accommodate government vessel refueling needs. When asked if the project will be ready for the icebreaker, Tootoo said, “Well I hope so,” noting that the project is moving forward as scheduled. As of Feb. 24, 2016, the department of Defence estimated a completion date of 2018.

On the eve of the fall election announcement, former Nunavut MP, Conservative Leona Aglukkaq, promised funding for a deep sea port for Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital. According to Tootoo, that plan is still in the works.

“As far as I’m aware, they’re working on an agreement between the infrastructure folks at the federal level and the territorial government here to be able to move that forward,” he said.◉


Photo credit: istockphoto/vice_and_virtue

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