Two steps forward, two steps back

TWO STEPS FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK…. The pattern is increasingly discouraging. On Thursday morning, officials dealing with the BP oil spill disaster offered some initial words of encouragement about the response efforts. As the day progressed, that optimism grew more tempered, and the top kill attempts had to be temporarily halted.

On Friday, we saw a replay — cautious optimism in the morning, followed by measured remarks, followed by temporary suspension of pumping operations.

The New York Times reported this morning that by late in the day, officials “acknowledged that the effort was no closer to succeeding than when they started.”

BP engineers struggled Friday to plug a gushing oil well a mile under the sea, but as of late in the day they had made little headway in stemming the flow.

Amid mixed messages about problems and progress, the effort — called a “top kill” — continued for a third day, with engineers describing a painstaking process of trying to plug the hole, using different weights of mud and sizes of debris like golf balls and tires, and then watching and waiting. They cannot use brute force because they risk making the leak worse if they damage the pipes leading down to the well.

Despite an apparent lack of progress, officials said they would continue with the process for another 48 hours, into Sunday, before giving up and considering other options, including another containment dome to try to capture the oil.

That the discussion is already moving to the consideration of “other options” suggests the expectations for top kill are moving in the wrong direction.

“I won’t say progress was zero, but I don’t know if we can round up enough mud to make it work,” an anonymous technician on the project said. “Everyone is disappointed at this time.”

For the record, BP we may not know with certainty about the outcome until tomorrow — or perhaps later.