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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.

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John Wathen, a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, says there's no shortage of people along the coast who feel the same way, but they're being turned away by BP. He says if BP would tap into the Waterkeeper network, which spans six continents, they would find a free fount of knowledge. Instead, even these seasoned environmentalists are having trouble sorting through the bureaucratic quagmire of the Deepwater command.

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"It's been an absolute fistfight," says Mr. Wathen. "We know our waters better than anyone. We're not here to sue or condemn anybody. We're out here to protect our watershed and our communities."

He echoes Hansen's advocacy for a trained network of volunteers. Residents could decide which area they'd like to focus on and take additional training in operating skimmers, laying boom, or rescuing and caring for injured wildlife.

"A lot of people are just yelling," says Jen McClurg Roth, founder of Clean the Gulf Now, a grass-roots group. "But it's about coming together and identifying the issues we can change."

6 Recalibrate our energy policy

It has become one of the iconic images of 2010: oil gushing from the floor of the Gulf, almost one mile below the surface, where it mushrooms up from BP's failed drilling rig like clouds of café au lait. The undersea feed from robotic cameras has popped up on national news telecasts and cable shows, during televised congressional hearings and presidential speeches – a potent reminder that for all the talk and technology, man's search for oil is risky and beginning to push the limits of human engineering.

It would be tempting to conclude that the answer is to switch energy sources, to the green alternatives favored by some or the natural-gas and nuclear options favored by others. Tempting and probably not doable. Like it or not, America and the world are stuck with oil for years to come when it comes to transportation. Oil powers 1 billion cars worldwide, 10,000 commercial aircraft, and thousands more ships and trains that deliver our goods, facilitate trade, and keep economies humming.

Nothing can compete with it in terms of price, ubiquity, and ease of use on such massive a scale. "If oil didn't exist, we'd have to invent it," says Robert Bryce, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future."

So the BP oil spill may not dramatically change US energy policy, but instead delivers a warning – as did the two OPEC oil embargoes, the Exxon-Valdez spill, and the record gas prices two years ago. The message: Our continued reliance on oil carries economic and environmental risks that the US will continue to bump up against until it undertakes a coherent and consistent policy to gradually wean us off fossil fuel.

"The lesson that we should learn here is that if we took sensible steps, baby steps, instead of these grandiose [pronouncements], I think we would be better off," says Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.