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PERMANENT SEAL WORK ADVANCES

After nearly three months of trying, BP could be in a position within a little more than a week to begin permanently sealing its leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP expects to intercept the outer ring of its gushing Macondo well by around July 20, starting what could be a two-step kill process that could stretch over weeks, BP's spill response leader Bob Dudley said Friday in a letter to federal spill leader Thad Allen.

While BP officials had said previously the runaway well could be capped before the end of July, they and Allen have kept to an official target of mid August to allow for potential weather delays and unforeseen operational issues.

The possibility of finishing the well ahead of schedule has come as a rare bright spot in a disaster that often has seemed plagued by failures and setbacks.

"Both the credibility and competence of BP and, by extension, the entire industry, are at stake here," said Nansen Saleri, CEO of Quantum Reservoir Impact in Houston and former head of reservoir management at Saudi Aramco.

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