NICOLA Sturgeon has been warned against passing up a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalise the Scottish economy after she admitted she is “highly sceptical” about fracking.

One of the country’s largest firms intervened after the First Minister revealed her personal view in a bid to counter claims that the SNP is preparing to give the controversial gas extraction method the green light after the Holyrood elections.

Ineos, which owns the sprawling Grangemouth petrochemical plant and owns fracking exploration licences for large swathes of central Scotland, said it believed shale gas could become “another Scottish success story like the North Sea” and “pick up the slack” of declining offshore reserves.

It came after the First Minister ducked questions over her long-term plans about unconventional oil and gas from Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who revealed that her party had toughened its stance by advocating an outright ban.

Unacceptable secrecy on fracking

Ms Sturgeon repeatedly said that a moratorium on fracking had been put in place by her Government, but refused to be drawn on her intentions after the temporary ban comes to an end next year following a period of evidence gathering and a consultation.

It was following the exchanges in the Holyrood chamber that her official spokesman said the SNP leader was “highly sceptical” about fracking and claimed the First Minister had expressed the view previously. However, he was unable to pinpoint when she had made the statement before and refused to explain specifically what Ms Sturgeon’s scepticism is based on, saying it had been informed by “all the publicly available information so far, in its entirety”.

It clashes with a previous claim by the billionaire Ineos chief Jim Ratcliffe, who after discussing fracking privately with Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government has assured him it is “not against” the method and its policy would be led by scientific research. The firm has said shale gas can be used as an energy source and a feedstock for its chemicals.

Following the row at Holyrood, an Ineos spokesman refused to directly address the remarks of Ms Sturgeon or Ms Dugdale but stated that shale gas offered Scotland a “once in a generation opportunity to secure much needed jobs and investment across the nation.”

He added: “At our Grangemouth plant, the decline in indigenous gas from the North Sea means we are now having to import shale gas from America. As North Sea reserves decline further, Scottish shale gas offers us the real prospect of picking up this slack and helping with the nation’s economic and energy needs for years to come.

“We are certain that shale gas can be extracted safely, as the Scottish government’s own expert panel have already stated. At Ineos we believe shale gas can become another Scottish success story like the North Sea, and that is why we will continue to argue for this important national resource to be explored.”

Labour, which previously backed local referendums before fracking could get the go-ahead, said it had changed its position as Holyrood is getting new powers over licensing, despite the Scottish Government previously having power to block any developments through the planning process, and due to growing concerns about climate change caused by burning fossil fuels.

Environmental groups welcomed the Ms Dugdale’s new policy to oppose the technique, which sees a mixture of water, sand and chemicals pumped underground at high pressure to fracture shale rock and release gas and has been blamed for water contamination and earthquakes.

Ms Dugdale claimed the SNP was preparing to allow fracking after its moratorium, despite its candidates across the country telling voters it would not be permitted under the party.

She said the Scottish Government’s decision to look into the future decommissioning of fracking plants was evidence of its intention to allow the practice and that ‘no fracking’ claims could not be trusted after the SNP this week broke a 10-year pledge to scrap the council tax.

Drawing comparisons with the council tax u-turn, Ms Dugdale said: “The SNP say fracking is bad. They have imposed a temporary freeze. A big report has been ordered. But it looks like they are going to go ahead and do it anyway. A moratorium is not an outright ban; it’s only a temporary stoppage. Her maybes aye, maybes naw response can mean only one thing – Nicola Sturgeon plans to give the green light if she is re-elected in May.”

Ms Sturgeon said: “We won’t allow fracking in Scotland because we will not take risks with our environment when there are still unanswered questions. That’s why we have a moratorium in place.”

She later repeated her pledge that there would be “no fracking in Scotland because there is a moratorium on fracking,” adding: “That’s what ‘moratorium’ means.”