WELLINGTON, Dec 9 (Reuters) - New Zealand awarded 15 oil and gas exploration licences on Tuesday, with U.S. giant Chevron and India's ONGC Videsh joining the hunt in the South Pacific country for the first time.
Chevron is partnering with Norway's Statoil to explore three prospects off the lightly explored south-east coast of the North Island.
Statoil is already in New Zealand and has been awarded a further offshore block in its own right at the top northwest coast of the North Island.
The Indian government controlled ONGC Videsh Ltd has made its first foray into New Zealand with one offshore exploration permit in the Taranaki Basin, in the same region as several commercially successful oil and gas fields.
"New players continue to enter our market, and existing players cement and expand their work here," Energy Minister Simon Bridges said in a statement.
The government has changed the rules for the tendering and awarding of exploration permits to encourage foreign companies to explore the southern oceans around the country.
The awarding of the permits, which are open for between 10 and 15 years, comes at a time when major oil companies such as BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil, and Total are cutting back on exploration, laying off staff and selling assets globally to cope with sliding oil prices.
The permit recipients have committed to various work programmes ranging from geological and seismic surveys through to drilling exploration wells.
Six of the permits awarded were for onshore blocks, including two on the west coast of the South Island, while nine were for offshore blocks. Of the total, seven permits were for exploration in the Taranaki region.
Other isolated finds have been made in the east of the North Island and the top of the South Island, but have not proved to be economic.
Austrian oil major OMV, which already has interests in commercial fields in New Zealand, has extended its involvement with two offshore permits.
Other permits were awarded to established explorer and producer Canada's TAG Oil, a joint venture of local Todd Exploration and Australia's Beach Petroleum, New Zealand-owned Petrochem Ltd and British-owned Mosman Oil and Gas Ltd.
A small New Zealand-based private company New Endeavour Resources Ltd, which wants to attract other investors, has entered the sector for the first time with an offshore permit. (Reporting by Gyles Beckford; Editing by Himani Sarkar)