OFF THE DEEP END 

The U.S. government on Monday approved the first new deepwater drilling permit in the Gulf of Mexico since last year's BP oil spill, raising hopes in the oil industry while frustrating some environmentalists. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement issued the permit to Houston-based Noble Energy, which had begun drilling a new well just 20 miles away from the Deepwater Horizon when the rig exploded last April. Noble's Santiago well was already 13,000 feet deep when work was halted by the Obama administration's deepwater moratorium a few weeks later.

The deepwater moratorium officially ended Oct. 12, but federal officials have been careful not to reopen the Gulf's depths too quickly, spending nearly five months approving only permits for technical work, like water-infusion wells that don't tap oil reservoirs. While the Santiago well had reached 13,000 feet when the moratorium was imposed, the company had to plug the well during the ban, and will now drill a "bypass well" to go around the plugs. Any new deepwater oil well in the Gulf is certainly big news, but as the New Orleans Times Picayune points out, the Santiago well is unique because it doesn't involve a new drilling plan. The U.S. has packed on new regulatory muscle since the BP spill, and it's applying intense scrutiny to any proposals for new exploration and drilling in the Gulf. The drilling plan that's furthest along so far is from Shell, for two new wells off the coast of west Louisiana.

Still, BOEMRE director Michael Bromwich insists the Santiago well's approval is a major milestone. "[It] is a new well in the sense it is going into a reservoir and therefore was barred under the moratorium," he says. "So we treat an application for a bypass like this much as we do for new wells. I don't think it's right to say, 'Oh, it's just a bypass so it's not as significant as a permit for a new well.'" Plus, he points out it reassures the oil industry that it will soon be able to exploit the Gulf's oil-rich seabed once again. "Industry has been waiting for signals that deepwater drilling would be able to resume, and I think they'll take this as that signal," Bromwich told reporters Monday, adding that more wells will be approved in the coming weeks. 

(Sources: New Orleans Times Picayune, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press)

SPACING OUT 

As the space shuttle Discovery winds down its 27-year career this week — beginning NASA's planned handoff of routine space flight to the private sector — it has many Americans thinking about what space tourism will be like. According to the lead story in today's Science Times, the first generation of made-for-tourist rockets will likely be filled not just with high-flying billionaires, but also scientists. In fact, many researchers are already snapping up the $200,000 tickets, even though no timetable has been set for the first launch.

Nearly a quarter million dollars may be a steep price for hanging out 62 miles above the ground (that's Earth's official border with space), but compared with NASA's typical multimillion-dollar price tags, "it's revolutionary," says S. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, which has already put down a deposit to send two scientists into space aboard Virgin's SpaceShipTwo. "We're really at the edge of something transformational." SRI scientists hope to perform experiments in space that would never be cost-effective aboard a NASA shuttle, such as how loose soil and rocks behave, or how a person's blood pressure changes. The institute intends to buy six more SpaceShipTwo seats on top of its initial two for a total of $1.6 million, Stern adds, and it also recently announced plans to buy six seats from another commercial space-flight company, XCOR Aerospace, which charges $95,000 per seat. 

Scientists are scrambling to get onto commercial spaceships, the Times reports, because few options currently exist for studying the effects of weightlessness. "We think that many new applications and studies will flourish with such access — access which does not exist today," says George Whitesides, CEO of the SRI. Several commercial startups plan to eventually perform daily trips into space, and although scientists may sometimes end up sitting next to a vacationing family, Whitesides says he'll try to avoid it, for everyone's sake. "We would of course not mix the two categories on the same flight if we thought that one would negatively impact the other," he says.

(Sources: New York Times, Space.com)

UMBRELLA INSURANCE 

As global warming brings unpredictable weather to countries around the world — such as 2010's droughts in Russia, floods in Australia and blizzards in the U.S. — farmers are finding it harder and harder to keep their crops alive. That's where a company called WeatherBill comes in: Its "Total Weather Insurance" lets farmers protect themselves against wild weather swings, offering personalized weather insurance based on the crops and climate. And on Monday, WeatherBill got a boost of its own, as Google Ventures joined other investors in pumping $42 million of new capital into the five-year-old company.

Droughts and storms were to blame for 90 percent of all U.S. crop losses last year, according to the USDA, and severe weather often poses even greater threats in developing countries, especially those near the tropics. "The flip flop of weather from one year to the next is the biggest challenge farmers face," one Ohio farmer tells the AFP. "It makes sense to me to take advantage of WeatherBill's automated weather-insurance programs that pinpoint the weather conditions expected to affect my land and pay me if they happen." WeatherBill has accumulated decades of weather data and runs large-scale weather simulations on its computers, letting it offer automated insurance plans to farmers based on the amount of rain and range of temperatures their crops need to thrive. 

WeatherBill was founded in 2006 by former Google executives, and it is now benefitting greatly from the search-engine giant's venture-capital investment arm, Google Ventures. "It is a technology company doing some work in insurance," Google Ventures' Bill Maris tells the AFP. Some of WeatherBill's other new investors were even more effusive. "WeatherBill is one of those rare companies that has the leadership and vision to apply new technology to an ancient and daunting problem — weather's impact on agriculture," says Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures. Although WeatherBill may eventually expand globally, it currently offers coverage only for farms in the U.S., where its focus will remain "for the next year or two," Khosla adds.

(Sources: San Francisco Business Times, Forbes, Agence-France Presse)

FOAM IN THE DOME 

Polystyrene is making a comeback at the U.S. Capitol, as the new Republican majority begins phasing out biodegradable cups, utensils and trays at the congressional cafeteria in favor of the more familiar, eco-unfriedly foam. The biodegradable items had been introduced by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when she led a Democratic majority in 2007, part of her "Green the Capitol" program. But for many GOP lawmakers, the Capitol had apparently become too green.

Pelosi's Green the Capitol campaign brought several much-heralded improvements, such as switching the Capitol Power Plant from coal to natural gas, and reducing the Capitol's energy and water use by 23 percent and 32 percent, respectively, the Washington Post reports. But its most controversial changes were in the Capitol Carry-Out, the building's basement cafeteria where cornstarch-based utensils and trays were introduced. Many lawmakers and aides complained the new utensils broke too easily upon contact with solid food, and since they also cost more than polystyrene, they made an obvious target for cost-cutting Republicans.

Diners at the Capitol Carry-Out will now begin seeing the traditional foam cups as well as plastic utensils and trays, the Post reports, with the chairman of the Committee on House Administration describing the use of environmentally friendly items as a failed experiment. "It is neither cost-effective nor energy-efficient," says Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif.

(Source: Washington Post

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

America's first national park is established, the U.S. detonates a hydrogen bomb, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (deepwater oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico): U.S. Oil Spill Commission

Image (Rocketplane XP commercial spacecraft): Rocketplane Global Inc./AP

Photo (storm clouds over farmland): Arizona Department of Water Resources

Photo (polystyrene drinking cup): ZUMA Press

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