Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Six lessons from the BP oil spill

What the tragedy of the BP oil spill has taught us about regulations, technology, and how our energy diet must change.

(Page 5 of 10)

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.

Skip to next paragraph

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).

Then there are the two Florida contractors who have been pitching a home-grown technique, using locally cut hay and straw to soak up the oil like a chamois. They can be seen demonstrating their simple solution on YouTube, pouring oil into large bowls of water, floating hay on top, stirring it around to simulate wave action, and – voilà! – a solution almost as clean as tap water.

As the Gulf crisis sears its place in history as one of America's worst environmental disasters, the one bit of good news is that it has become a petri dish for testing new ways to clean up spills. Clever inventors, eager entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens are flooding oil-giant BP and US government offices with ideas for sanitizing the ocean.

The bad news: No one technology exists that can do the job – and likely won't in the future. Instead, experts say, the task is so complex that it will take improvements in many different kinds of tools to contain and clean up spills.

One reason is the sheer magnitude of the task. As much as 140 million gallons of oil has seeped from the Gulf, sending deposits ashore from Texas to Florida. The oil both floats on the surface and sinks. Some of it disperses. It also takes on different properties as it spreads – from a glossy slick to thick tar balls. Cleaning beaches or harbors requires different techniques from separating oil from water at sea. This is to say nothing of what hurricanes or rough seas can do to a cleanup effort.