Plans to exploit underground gas in Scotland were dealt a blow yesterday when the Scottish Government announced that it was going to require buffer zones around drilling sites.

The announcement was made to coincide with an anti-fracking protest by environmental groups outside the SNP conference in Perth.

Protestors were told by the Scottish Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, that the Government was intending to toughen up the planning rules for onshore gas developments. "This Government listens to local communities and those calling for stronger environmental protection," he said.

It was the introduction of 2km buffer zones around proposed gas wells in New South Wales, Australia, that forced developer, Dart Energy, to abandon them in favour of pursuing its plans. The company's application to sink 22 wells to extract methane from underground coal seams at Airth, near Falkirk has prompted more than 2500 objections and is to be heard at a public inquiry early in 2014.

The Government says any proposals to mine for underground gas will now have to "provide an adequate buffer zone between sites".

Environmentalists say that if it is 2km, at least half of the wells Dart plans at Airth will be ruled out, making it economically unviable.

"This is a huge problem for Dart Energy's plans for drilling for gas in Scotland," said Mary Church, head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth Scotland.

Dart Energy said it would review the planning changes when they became available. A spokesman said: "The proposed coalbed methane development at Airth is being dealt with under the current planning regime and the company is satisfied that its health, safety and environmental policies and procedures for the development are already very robust."