CAMPAIGNERS have called for communities to oppose fracking after the owners of Scotland's largest petro-chemical plant announced plans for a major expansion of the controversial process north of the Border.

Ineos, the owners of the Grangemouth plant, has announced £640 million plans for shale gas exploration and appraisal in a move which could make it the biggest player in the industry in the UK.

It already has two licences for extracting the natural resource from under the ground near its Grangemouth refinery, but is applying for more in Scotland and the north of England.

Green Party MSP Patrick Harvie said it would face opposition from people living in towns and villages who fear the process would blight their lives. Greenpeace accused the firm of jumping on the shale gas bandwagon.

Mr Harvie said with climate change scientists suggesting the world has access to far more fossil fuel that it can safely burn, the public would be justified in opposing such "risky new techniques for extracting more gas."

He said: "We should be looking to use our existing hydrocarbon supplies carefully and within limits, rather than chasing more, as well as investing in clean technology that delivers long-term jobs and a safe environment.

"If Ineos think they can easily frack the Forth Valley they've got another thing coming. This is a highly-populated area, and we've already seen serious opposition mobilised in local communities where coal bed methane drilling has been proposed.

"Anyone thinking of fracking in Scotland's central belt will face a similar wave of protest."

Greenpeace UK accused Ineos' move as a 'speculative bet' on a fuel source which is unproven and risky. Campaigner Simon Clydesdale said: "Ineos have jumped on a spin-powered bandwagon which is going nowhere. It seems that Ineos have based their business plan on breathless PR brochures rather than scientific reports."

Labour's shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex, the MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, added: "Shale gas extraction cannot go ahead unless we have a system of robust environmental regulation and comprehensive inspection."

He accused the Coalition Government of sideling legitimate environmental concerns.

However, Scottish Conservative energy spokesman Murdo Fraser said shale gas represented a huge opportunity, adding: "It is good to see that Ineos is intent on maximising its potential."

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves pumping water, chemicals and sand at high pressure underground to fracture shale rock and release gas.

Making the announcement of the company's plans, Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe said: "I believe shale gas could revolutionise UK manufacturing and I know Ineos has the resources to make it happen, the skills to extract the gas safely and the vision to realise that everyone must share in the rewards."

Ineos said it had put forward proposals for the monitoring of methane in the groundwater, environmental impact assessments and a statutory 12-month monitoring period, but these were rejected by the UK Government.

Chief executive Gary Haywood said wells had been built next to schools, churches and houses in the US, sometimes in the centre of large towns. But the company stressed they did not think it would be necessary to drill wells in densely populated areas, with many applications in rural areas. Drilling can be done without too much disruption, he added.

The Scottish Government said it believed an evidence-based approach to fracking was needed, including ensuring strong environmental protection and making sure that the views of communities are taken into account. A spokesman said: "As has been recognised by environmental NGOs, our approach is in stark contrast to the approach of the UK Government.

"In particular the Scottish Government has strongly opposed the UK Government's plans to grant automatic drilling access rights under homes no matter the views of householders."