WASHINGTON -- A single New Mexico family and a dozen big oil companies, including one once headed by Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, now control one-quarter of all federal lands leased for oil and gas development in the continental United States despite a law intended to prevent such concentration, federal records show.
Since 1997, mainly as a result of mergers and acquisitions, six companies have exceeded the legal limit of 246,080 acres in lease holdings on public lands in states other than Alaska. But the Bureau of Land Management, in charge of enforcing the 1920 law, has chosen to extend compliance deadlines for years.
In fact, an Associated Press computer analysis found the Interior Department agency permitted companies it knew were in violation of the law in Wyoming to continue to acquire thousands of acres of new oil and gas leases in that state. The bureau has given the companies additional years to comply.
''They should not be purchasing leases," said Tom Lonnie, the bureau's assistant director for minerals, realty, and resource protection. Before acquiring a lease, a company must certify that its holdings do not exceed the legal limit.
The government can cancel leases held by companies that exceed the cap. Agency officials acknowledge they have never done that nor denied a company's request for more time to comply.
Companies in violation of the state limit as a result of a merger or acquisition have 180 days to comply.
''We try to work with them instead of hitting them with a hammer," said Bob Bennett, the bureau's Wyoming state director.
In the first 15 months of Anadarko's extension, the company acquired 70 new leases in Wyoming totaling more than 100,000 acres. A year after granting EnCana the extension, the bureau allowed EnCana to acquire two new leases totaling more than 2,000 acres in the state.
Anadarko relinquished 50 of its leases to meet a deadline this April 30 to get back under the acreage cap, Lonnie said. EnCana has until October to comply. Four other companies that had gone over the cap in Wyoming since 1997 are now in compliance.
Bureau officials say they have to rely on companies to provide accounts of their holdings because the agency's records do not track transfers of lease operating rights or the ownership of divided shares of leases.
The lax enforcement coincides with the Bush administration's push to open new public lands for oil and gas development. In March, bureau records showed 40 million acres of federal lands were under lease in the continental United States. That is 5.3 million more acres than when President Bush took office.
Companies and individuals that dominate federal oil and gas leasing have been major financial supporters of Bush and the Republican Party. Since 1999, the top 25 owners of federal oil and gas leases have directed 86 percent of their $8.2 million in political donations to the GOP.
Individuals and companies affiliated with the Yates family of Artesia, N.M., which is by far the biggest leaseholder, have given $276,926 to GOP parties and candidates since 1999, and just $11,400 to Democrats.
Vice President Dick Cheney visited Artesia in March to raise money for a GOP congressional candidate backed by the Yateses. A month earlier, he was in Albuquerque for a presidential campaign fund-raiser that took in more than $200,000.
Denver-based Tom Brown Inc. was over the acreage limit in Wyoming from 1997 to 2000, while current Commerce Secretary Evans was the company's chief executive. As Bush's campaign chairman, Evans raised millions of dollars from the oil industry for the 2000 campaign. When he resigned at Tom Brown before joining the Cabinet in 2001, Evans received a retirement package worth more than $5 million.