TALKS on controversial plans to exploit underground gas in central Scotland have broken down, paving the way for an appeal to the Scottish Government.

Australian firm Dart Energy has postponed the start of commercial mining for coal-bed methane around Airth this year as Falkirk and Stirling councils have delayed deadlines for a decision.

Until now, the delays have been agreed between the councils and the company. But in the last few weeks they have failed to reach an agreement on a new deadline, enabling Dart to appeal directly to Scottish ministers for a decision.

As many as 1500 objections have been lodged with the two councils against Dart's plans. The firm has applied for planning permission to sink 22 wells at 14 sites to extract up to 60 billion cubic feet of gas.

There are fears gas could leak and water could be contaminated, putting public health at risk. But the company insists the process will be safe, and claims it has no plans to use the hotly disputed technology of fracking to get at the gas.

According to Falkirk Council, Dart had agreed to extend the timetable for deciding on its application until May 7. But the council said: "Mutual agreement to define a further revised determination date has not been reached."

Dart has until August 7 to appeal to the Scottish Government's planning directorate against the council's "non-determination". The company, which has shed 70% of its staff worldwide, is under commercial pressure to get the go-ahead at Airth.

Dart said it had first notified the councils of its planning application for wells and processing facilities in April 2012. "At present, four months after conclusion of the statutory process, while we have no schedule towards a decision, we continue to work with Falkirk and Stirling councils and a wide range of local communities to progress the application," said a company spokesman.

A development plan for Airth, drawn up by Dart's predecessor company in 2006 and released to the protest group Frack Off under freedom of information law, revealed anxiety about council delays. "There is a concern local authority planning process may not be able to keep up with the required or desired pace of development," it said.

Friends of the Earth Scotland has invited an Australian expert and campaigner against coal-bed methane to Scotland this week. Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, the senior advisor to the Australian National Toxics Network, is due to meet MSPs, council officials and local community representatives.

Her experience with Dart and the coal-bed methane industry in Australia has convinced her Scotland should not make the same mistakes. "The industry carries far too many risks to water and air quality, to the environment and to human health," she told The Herald.

"In Australia, communities are suffering the health impacts associated with the industries' pollution. Some of our rivers are showing environmental damage and now bubble methane, farmers are losing access to clean water and rural communities are simply being industrialised and their way of life ruined."