NICOLA Sturgeon faces a war with her own party if she moves to allow unconventional gas extraction techniques in Scotland, after grassroots SNP members launched a campaign to have methods such as fracking banned.

A new group, SNP Members Against Unconventional Oil and Gas (SMAUG), has been set up with a view to persuading the party leadership to take a tougher stance on the issue, at the same time that the pro-fracking lobby stepped up its campaign to win over public support.

It is calling for Underground Coal Gasification [UCG], a technique which sees coal set alight under the sea bed, to be included in a Scottish Government moratorium before May's Holyrood election and said its longer term aim was securing an outright ban on all unconventional fuel extraction methods, which it believes are incompatible with tackling climate change.

At present, UCG is not included in the moratorium despite many environmental campaigners believing it to be more dangerous than fracking. Documents released under Freedom of Information laws have shown that Alex Neil, the SNP planning minister, offered private assurances to the industrialist planning to exploit the technique under the Firth of Forth that his plans would not be affected by the moratorium.

Meanwhile, the SNP Government has continued to dodge questions over fracking, a process that sees narrow holes drilled deep into the earth and water, sand and chemicals injected into shale rock at high pressure to release gas, and what its moratorium means in practice. It has refused to rule out allowing test drilling to take place, has called for tax revenues from fracking to be assigned to Holyrood and will not explain why a promised consultation has not yet materialised.

Despite presenting itself as anti-fracking during the general election campaign, a refusal to answer straightforward questions has raised suspicion that the SNP is hoping to sidestep the controversial issue until after May's election before giving fracking the green light.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that any move in favour of fracking would spark an angry backlash from members. Iain Black, one of SMAUG's founders, described strength of feeling among SNP members as "very strong" over the issue and the group is hoping to persuade a significant number of the SNP's 110,000 members to back it. Many of the SNP's parliamentarians have spoken out publicly against fracking, while SMAUG has already won support from Friends of the Earth, WWF Scotland and anti-UCG campaign group Our Forth.

In a statement, the group said: "We are proud of the SNP’s history in leading the world by setting tough carbon reduction targets. We believe that exploiting these deposits is entirely at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus on the need for significant carbon pollution reductions if we, as part of the global community, are to help halt dangerous climate change. At a community level, we also believe the evidence is clear that the techniques used cause significant local environmental and public health damage. Indeed, how could pumping into the earth under our communities, 100,000s of litres of water laced with grade one carcinogens such as benzine or the endocrine disruptor boric acid, not damage our waterways, our land and our health?"

Ineos, the chemical giant that wants to establish a large scale fracking industry in Scotland and regularly meets with SNP ministers, is pushing ahead with its plans in spite of the moratorium.

The company, which insists fracking can be carried out safely and would provide a huge boost to the country's economy, has begun a fresh series of town hall-style meetings across the country in a bid to convince a sceptical public.

It also announced yesterday that it is to spend £20 million on new headquarters at its Grangemouth plant, which is one of the most important industrial complexes in Scotland. It is transporting shale gas from America for use as a base ingredient for many of its products, as part of a rescue plan drawn up after its survival was threatened in 2013. It also has ambitious plans to attract other businesses to the complex.

John McNally, CEO of Ineos Olefins and Polymers at Grangemouth, said a Scottish shale gas industry was "very important" to Grangemouth's long-term survival.

He added: "We have secured the site for 15 years, but we have to go to the US and ship the stuff across the Atlantic. Would I prefer an indigenous feedstock? Absolutely. It would be excellent for our chemicals business and the energy strategy for the UK if we can get shale running over the next five to 10 years."

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Cluff Natural Resources, which is behind UCG plans in the Firth of Forth, said the industry could be worth billions to Scotland and support hundreds of well paid jobs.

She added: "We all recognise the requirement to transition to a low carbon future, however campaigners with an ideological opposition to domestic hydrocarbon production need to clearly explain to the people of Scotland how they would intend to generate future energy supplies, and the wealth required to support that transition."

An SNP spokesman said: "There are a range of views across Scotland on issues around unconventional oil and gas, which is why the Scottish Government has put in place a moratorium on fracking to allow a full public consultation where all views can be heard and all evidence can be considered. This has been welcomed by people on all sides of the fracking debate - and stands in stark contrast to the gung-ho approach favoured by the UK Government."