SCOTLAND'S marine environment is at risk from the impact of billions of pounds worth of green energy projects after the Government delayed publication of new planning guidelines for almost two years, it has been claimed.

Some of the country's leading environmental groups have joined forces to condemn changes to the timetable for the National Marine Plan, which will identify the most sensitive sites and offer a framework for their protection from offshore renewable development.

The Scottish Government said environmental issues would still be addressed by current safeguards.

However, members of umbrella group Scotland Environmental LINK are concerned the delays come while Government guidance to the renewables industry over potential development sites is well advanced – leaving a risk of equipment being located in unsuitable areas. It claimed the lack of such guidelines would favour short-term, large-scale development without ensuring due consideration of wider environmental impacts with industry too at risk from bad planning decisions.

Offshore development has become a key focus of the Scottish Government as it seeks to meet ambitious green energy targets and create tens of thousands of jobs in the process. Up to 1500 wind turbines are already proposed for the Scottish waters, with some £5 billion of investment projected for wave and tidal projects in the Pentland Firth and the waters around Orkney alone.

Sarah Dolman, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said: "The National Marine Plan cannot be shelved for another year-and-a-half. Some of the biggest marine renewable projects in the world are being planned for Scotland's seas right now, and we currently don't even have a planning system in place to co-ordinate them in our already busy waters. This lack of joined-up planning wouldn't be tolerated on land."

Alex Kinninmonth, of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said the absence of the guidelines meant a "strategic planning vacuum" had been created with the Marine Conservation Society claiming there was a danger of developing beyond the sea's environmental limits given the "bureaucratic limbo".

Kara Brydson, of RSPB Scotland, said it was in the interests of developers to have the National Marine Plan. She said: "Without a National Marine Plan to co-ordinate and inform investment, the environmental credentials of energy companies are at reputational risk. Protection of the marine environment is central to planning and without adequate co-ordination in place this could have serious implications for the energy market as well as our natural heritage."

The marine plan was originally due to be finalised this year but will now remain on the bureaucratic shelf until its publication at the end of 2014.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said the National Marine Plan is a priority and further views were being sought on its contents. She said: "In addressing a number of issues identified by the pre-consultation draft, we are seeking to ensure policies are developed to support the wide range of marine sectors and to deliver an integrated approach across reserved and devolved matters.

"Our approach meets stakeholders' requests for a joined-up consultation across the national plan, marine protected areas and sectoral plans for marine renewable energy.

"The sectoral planning under way at present provides non-statutory direction for developers and users of the seas, steering development to be taken forward in areas of best resource and least constraint. Sectoral planning and the licensing regime ensure development takes account of environmental sensitivities and other users of the sea."