The Department of Energy is looking for companies to take part in a "group shoot" on federal land in Utah, according to the April 3 Federal Register (page 20262).

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let's first get straight what is being hunted is not animals, but the presence of oil or gas reserves.

A group shoot, in the world of oil exploration, is when interested companies agree to participate in geologic analyses and seismic testing of a prospective area and share equally in the information developed.

What DOE has in mind is looking into prospective development of the first of the three, until-now, untouched properties called Naval Oil Shale Reserves. This one called, NOSR-2, is located in the northeast portion of Utah. The geological structure of this area, according to the DOE notice, "indicates the potential for commercially producible quantities of oil and gas from this property."

Although oil and gas have been found in areas adjacent to this land, DOE believes it needs more tests on the property "prior to any drilling activities."

There is more than a little history attached to the idea of federal agencies exploring and operating oil fields on government-owned lands. A 1916 executive order, signed by then-President Woodrow Wilson, established the oil shale reserves, but it wasn't until 1962, that the secretary of the Navy was given authority to develop or operate wells on these properties.

A law in 1920 put three different pieces of federally owned, oil-producing land, the Naval Petroleum Reserves, under the control of the Navy secretary, the idea originally being that the output of these reserves would be used to power the fleet. Within a year, private companies convinced Warren Harding administration officials they should secretly be given production leases on the land -- and the Teapot Dome scandal was born.

That bit of America's past must be weighing on the minds of the DOE officials directing development of this Naval oil shale land. Their notice requests public advance on "which bidding system would be most appropriate for the property . . . what is the appropriate basis for the awarding of leasing . . . what is an appropriate leasing term?"

In addition, the notice makes it clear that before this property could be leased for development, approval must be obtained from the president after consultation with the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

If that weren't enough, before any oil or gas could be taken out of the ground, the president must approve the agreement and both houses of Congress must pass a joint resolution of authorization.

It sounds like a long process with safe-guards galore. But one official said it might only be two years or so before exploration could get under way in earnest, given the expected increase in domestic demand for oil and gas in the coming years -- a market DOE seems to want to get involved in.