The Obama administration defended its response to the oil spill on Sunday and insisted it had not been overly reliant on BP in assessing the disaster.

However, even as the administration sought to reassure the public that it was doing everything in its power to address the environmental threat, Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, acknowledged that the US was inevitably facing a “massive restoration of the gulf coast”.

“The scenario is . . . very grave,” Mr Salazar said on NBC’s Meet the Press. He warned that it could take up to 90 days for industry and government efforts to succeed in building a relief well 3.5 miles below the ocean floor to stop the flow of oil.

Hours before President Barack Obama arrived on the gulf coast to survey the damage, his administration was insisting that it had not made any missteps in the early days of the crisis.

“This was a situation that was treated as a possible catastrophic failure from day one,” Janet Napolitano, homeland security secretary, said on NBC. “We had independent projections being done at the beginning and realise this incident evolved over time.”

The administration has faced criticism that a “controlled burn” of the spill did not begin until four days after a new leak was discovered. Ms Napolitano, who along with other US officials took to the airwaves on Sunday to discuss the leak, said early efforts to contain the spill had been impeded by weather conditions.

“Mother Nature has not exactly been friendly,” she said on ABC News.

Though it said it was prepared for the worst, the administration signalled continued confidence in the safety of offshore drilling. Mr Salazar also indicated that economic considerations remained the White House’s top priority in determining its actions on other wells.

“There are 30,000 wells that have been drilled out in the Gulf of Mexico, and so this is a very, very rare event,” Mr Salazar said on ABC. “Thirty per cent of the oil that we produce domestically comes from the Gulf of Mexico, and so for us to turn off those spigots would have a very, very huge impact on America’s economy right now when the president is doing everything to stand up this economy.”

Although the White House said its first priority was stemming the flow of oil, Congress is already conducting probes into potential safety and environmental violations. Last week, Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House energy committee, called for a May 12 hearing to examine the adequacy of BP’s response to the disaster.

Halliburton and Transocean, which both provided services on the rig, were also called to testify.

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