Robert Ballard Found the Titanic, So Maybe BP Should Let Him Lend a Hand

submarine robot
submarine robot

What do the Titanic and the BP oil spill have in common? Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who rocketed to international fame when he discovered the wreck of the mammoth British oceanliner in 1985, is advising the U.S. government on how to deal with the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Given Dr. Ballard's expertise in advanced deep-sea technology as well as his scientific background in underwater geology, he has been consulted by representatives of the U.S. government both on-scene and inWashington,D.C.,as they continue to seek various solutions to this unique underwater disaster, and will continue to provide his expertise as requested," says Becky Giantonio, a spokeswoman for the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, which Ballard heads, in an email.

"On a more personal note," she adds, "Dr. Ballard is deeply saddened by this disaster because of its potential long-term impact on the environment of the Gulf and beyond."

Giantonio didn't elaborate further and couldn't immediately be reached for follow-up. Ben Sherman, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says in an interview that he had "no idea" what assistance Ballard was providing. An official at the U.S. Coast Guard Joint Information Center, which is tasked with handing media queries for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, referred my call to BP (BP). Officials from the U.K. oil company, which has accepted responsibility for the disaster, didn't immediately return a phone call.

An Expert in Robotic Exploration

BP executives, including embattled CEO Tony Hayward, will be at the White House this week for meetings that will include President. Obama. Last week ,Obama surprised many observers when he admitted he had not spoken directly with Hayward. This weekend, the Coast Guard gave BP 48 hours to come up with a plan to quicken its efforts to contain the spill. Members of Congress and the administration are demanding that BP set up a $20 billion independently administered escrow account to compensate victims. Estimates for the costs of the spill have already reached $37 billion.

Ballard, also a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, is famous for using remote-control-operated vehicles (ROVs), to find shipwrecks that were thought lost forever to the murky, dark waters of the deep. Given that the oil is escaping at 5,000 below the Gulf's surface, much too deep for humans, using ROVs is the only way to stop the spill. A ROV, basically a robotic submarine guided by a human pilot with a joystick, also is providing the streaming video that has brought the disaster to people around the world via the Internet.

So far, the tools wielded by ROVs have failed to stop the flow of oil gushing into the Gulf, so it's not surprising that the government would be seeking Ballard's help. In addition to locating the iceberg-stricken Titanic, Ballard also has found scores of ancient wrecks and remnants of World War II vessels such as President John Kennedy's PT-109. He also does not appear to suffer fools easily. When asked by NOAA about the obstacles he has faced in his career, Ballard replied in a 2005 profile: "My biggest obstacles have been people who are threatened by my accomplishments as well as those who lack vision."

Some Offers for Help Aren't Welcome

Vision is exactly what the government needs to address the catastrophe in the Gulf. The scientific firepower tackling the Deepwater Horizon disaster is already formidable. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has so little confidence in BP's efforts that he has established a team of scientists known for their "creative thinking." It includes Richard L. Garwin, who helped develop the first hydrogen bomb in 1951.

Not everyone's help has been welcome. BP rejected an offer from Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron, whose credits include Titanic (the movie, that is). The oil company was far more receptive to Kevin Costner who has spent $20 million developing a machine that can separate oil from water. According to the New York Daily News, BP has ordered 32 machines and is testing them.