WELLINGTON, Sept. 19 (Xinhua) -- The New Zealand government came under fire Monday with claims it was encouraging oil and gas exploration in the habitat of the world's rarest dolphin.
The claims came after Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges announced the start of the block offer 2017 consultation process for awarding oil and gas exploration permits.
Consultation would take place on four proposed offshore areas, one proposed offshore/onshore area, and two proposed onshore areas, covering a total area of around 508,691 square kilometers.
"I acknowledge the challenging low oil-price environment that industry is currently facing, but we know commodity prices are cyclical. The government remains committed to providing a stable and predictable regime," Bridges said in a statement.
However, the block offer area included part of the critically endangered Maui's dolphin marine sanctuary, the opposition Green Party said.
Approximately 4,000 square km of the Maui's dolphin sanctuary -- roughly a third of its total area -- was "up for grabs," Green Party energy and resources spokesperson Gareth Hughes said in a statement.
"With just 55 Maui's dolphins left, it is hugely irresponsible to offer drilling permits in a third of the sanctuary where they live."
The largest ever block offer permit area covered was 525,515 square km for this year.
Bridges said when tenders opened in March that oil remained a significant export earner for New Zealand and natural gas was a vital input to industry, electricity generation and was used in more than 300,000 homes.
The consultation period for block offer 2017 runs until Nov. 18 and the final tender area will be announced in March next year.