Recommendations for South Africa's first shale gas exploration licenses in the semi-arid Karoo Basin will be finalized, soon after environmental objections delayed the process, a senior government official said May 15.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc (NYSE: RDS.A), Falcon Oil and Gas Ltd. and Bundu Gas & Oil Pty Ltd. are among five applications being reviewed by the regulator, acting Petroleum Agency SA (PASA) CEO Lindiwe Mekwe told Reuters.

PASA will make recommendations to the ministry of mineral resources, which will take a final decision on the licenses as South Africa looks to augment dwindling offshore gas reserves and help diversify its energy mix away from coal-fired plants supplying most of it electricity needs.

"We anticipate that the minister will be in a position to make a determination during the second or third quarter," Mekwe said.

"If the decision is made this year, the exploration rights will be valid for a period of three years; exploration activities should commence within three years," she said.

Environmentalists have strongly criticized exploration prospects in the sparsely populated Karoo, renowned for its rugged scenery and which is home to species such as the mountain zebra and riverine rabbit, one of the rarest mammals in the world.