A boom in exploiting underground gas is facing mounting opposition from communities and environmentalists worried about the contamination of water supplies and climate pollution.

An investigation by the Sunday Herald has discovered there are 10 sites across the central belt and in the south-west being explored and developed for methane, with the prospect of many more to come. The flammable gas can be extracted by drilling, draining and pumping, sometimes using the controversial "fracking" technique, whereby high-pressure water is used to fracture deep-lying rocks to the extract gas.

But critics warn that, whether or not fracking is used, the risks that groundwater will be polluted and public health put at risk are "unacceptably high". They also fear that exploiting the gas will make it impossible for Scotland to meet its target to cut carbon emissions.

A major Australian company, Dart Energy, is behind most of the plans in Scotland to extract coal-bed methane, which it believes is a potentially huge resource.

It took over the Scottish firm, Composite Energy, a year ago, acquiring a series of exploratory drilling sites in Falkirk, Stirling, Clackmannanshire and Fife (see table). In recent weeks, it has also taken over licences acquired by Greenpark Energy in the Canonbie area of Dumfries and Galloway.

Two of the Greenpark licences from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) are "for the injection of fracking fluids into groundwater" in coal seams at Mouldyhills and Broadmeadows near Canonbie. There have been 26 planning applications leading to around 17 borehole sites in the area.

The other main area of coal-bed methane development is around Airth, near Falkirk. There, Sepa has issued licences for water to be extracted from 11 boreholes, and Dart Energy has signed a £300 million deal to supply gas to Scottish and Southern Energy.

Later this year, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change is due to begin a new round of petroleum exploration licensing, which covers underground gas. This will greatly expand an area across central Scotland for exploitation by developers who, to date, have managed to stay under the radar, avoiding much opposition. But there are now clear signs of that changing.

An application for coal-bed methane drilling at Moodiesburn in North Lanarkshire by Reach Coal Seam Gas was withdrawn two weeks ago after more than 200 objections were lodged. "I have serious concerns regarding the effect it will have on the structure of our homes," said one local resident, Alice Webb.

"I believe this proposal will put health, property and the environment at serious risk," said another resident, Brian McDonald. He added: "I am appalled the council are considering such an application in a residential area."

Leading environmental group, Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES), is gearing up to launch a campaign to help communities resist coal-bed methane proposals. It points to a series of studies in the US showing that fracking can contaminate groundwater, and that its fluids have leaked and killed farm animals.

A company that had started fracking for shale gas at a site near Blackpool was forced to stop last year due to fears it had triggered small earthquakes. It commissioned a study that concluded it was "highly probable" fracking was to blame.

FoES argues that extracting methane from coal beds without fracking would be at least as dangerous. Aquifers – water-holding underground areas – are often nearby and liable to pollution, and large amounts of coal-contaminated water must be gotten rid of.

"There are inherent and unacceptably high environmental and health risks associated with coal-bed methane and shale gas extraction, whether or not fracking is used," said FoES campaigner, Mary Church.

She added that "investing in unconventional gas now will lock us into dangerously high greenhouse gas emissions and make it extremely difficult to meet our legally binding carbon reduction targets in 2050."

She called on ministers to ban all unconventional gas exploitation. She was backed by the Women's Environment Network in Scotland, whose spokeswoman, Morag Parnell, said: "We need to bring to an end this highly polluting coal-bed methane exploration in Scotland."

Sepa is concerned that the gas exploitation "could lead to deterioration in groundwater quality, disturbance to groundwater levels or indirectly impact on other sensitive parts of the water environment." That's why regulatory controls were necessary, the agency said.

The Scottish Government did not expect "significant emissions" from the extraction of coal-bed methane. "We have not included shale gases or coal-bed methane in our plans for more renewables ... in Scotland's future energy mix," said a Government spokesman.

Dart Energy said that it was reviewing all the licences it had obtained from Greenpark Energy for the Canonbie area. "There is no drilling on them at the moment," said a Dart spokesman. He declined, however, to respond to fears about contamination and health risks. "The company believes these issues warrant a proper conversation set in context rather than responding to cherry-picked sound bites," he said.