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Six lessons from the BP oil spill

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Out of that came the unified command structure in place today – delineating the duties of the Coast Guard, state and local officials, and the oil company responsible for the spill. While not everything has gone roller-bearing smooth, at least the federal government quickly designated an "incident commander and everybody knows who's in charge," notes Mr. Pettit.

Still, the US clearly has more to learn about managing cleanups. One area needing attention is what to do with locals. In Norway, the World Wildlife Fund conducts training courses for volunteers in cooperation with a spill-response company.

Ultimately, no amount of coordination may be enough to handle a spill of this magnitude. The overarching lesson may be to beware of technological hubris. "We are learning that there are limits to our technology and limits to our capacity to respond to disasters," says Steven Cohen, who heads Columbia University's Earth Institute.

4 Find something better than a boom

The ideas for new tools to clean up oil spills range from the mundane (better chemical dispersants to break up the crude so it will degrade naturally) to the exotic (ravenous microbes to eat the oil off beaches).

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