- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 15, 2010

KENNER, La. | The blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico could be pronounced dead in a matter of days.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the oil spill, said Wednesday that the relief well BP has been drilling all summer long should intersect the ruptured well within 24 hours. He said mud and cement will then be pumped in, sealing the hole once and for all by Sunday.

“We are within a 96-hour window of killing the well,” Adm. Allen said nearly five months after the disaster unfolded with an explosion aboard an offshore drilling rig April 20 that killed 11 workers.

The news came on the same day the Obama administration announced it will require oil and gas companies to plug thousands of idle wells in the Gulf to make sure they don’t leak.

No oil has spewed into the Gulf since a temporary cap was put on the busted BP well in mid-July. Mud and cement were later pushed down through the top of the well, allowing the cap to be removed. The relief well is being drilled 2 1/2 miles through dirt and rock beneath the sea floor so that the ruptured well can also be sealed from the bottom, ensuring it never causes a problem again.

As of Wednesday morning, crews had only 20 feet left to drill.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Adm. Allen announced that he will step down as incident commander for the oil spill on Oct. 1 — the same day BP installs American Bob Dudley in Mr. Hayward’s place. Adm. Allen will be succeeded by Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft.

The spill of more than 200 million gallons of oil led to closer scrutiny of the thousands of other wells in the Gulf, stoked anger toward BP and cost CEO Tony Hayward his job.

On Wednesday, testifying before a British parliamentary committee, Mr. Hayward insisted his company had a strong safety record and was not solely to blame for the disaster. But he also acknowledged: “I understand why people feel the way they do, and there is little doubt that the inability of BP, and the industry, to intervene to seal the leak … was unacceptable.”

Later in Washington, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order requiring oil and gas companies to plug nearly 3,500 nonproducing wells and dismantle about 650 production platforms no longer in use. The action is intended to prevent catastrophic leaks at wells that in some cases have been abandoned for decades.

“As infrastructure continues to age, the risk of damage increases. That risk increases substantially during storm season,” said Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

More than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lie beneath the Gulf, and more than 1,200 oil rigs and platforms sit idle. An Associated Press investigation showed that many of the wells have been ignored for decades, with no one checking for leaks.

Under the order issued Wednesday, operators must plug wells that have been inactive for the past five years. Platforms and pipelines that are not being used for production or exploration must be decommissioned, even if the leases are still active.

Federal regulations require idle structures to be decommissioned — a process that involves plugging wells and dismantling and removing equipment — within one year of the lease’s expiration date.

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