THE firm that wants to establish a fracking industry in Scotland still expects the controversial technique to get the green light, despite Nicola Sturgeon publicly suggesting that she will block its plans permanently.

Senior figures at Ineos, the owner of the Grangemouth industrial complex which holds fracking exploration licences for large swathes of central Scotland, said the company remains supportive of a Scottish Government moratorium and evidence gathering process, believing its position would be vindicated by new research which will mean fracking is permitted from next year.

Ms Sturgeon has recently hardened her stance against unconventional oil and gas, revealing she is "highly sceptical" about fracking in response to Scottish Labour calling for a ban and going even further in a televised pre-election debate on Thursday night.

The First Minister said: "If there is any suggestion at all it harms our environment there will never be fracking allowed in Scotland as long as I've got anything to do with it".

She also hinted that Scottish Government research on fracking decommissioning had actually been ordered to justify a ban, saying "perhaps what we're trying to show is just how expensive and difficult it might be to do that" and said a move to block fracking now could lead to a legal challenge.

However, a spokesman for Ineos said the firm was taking “at face value” assurances that a final decision would be based on scientific evidence and believes that results of new research would back up a previous Scottish Government commissioned study which concluded fracking can be carried out safely, if properly regulated.

The company spoke out this week as US shale gas was imported into Europe for the first time ever when the first of a fleet of eight purpose built ships arrived at its Norwegian plant after crossing the Atlantic. Weekly deliveries are due to begin at Grangemouth, where shale gas from America will be stored in a giant, purpose built tank and used as a feedstock for its petrochemical business, in the summer.

Asked about the First Minister’s scepticism as the ship, emblazoned with a slogan ‘Shale Gas for Progress’ and a Saltire arrived in Norway on Wednesday, an Ineos spokesman said that the firm expected to be given permission to begin fracking once a moratorium ends next year and that it made little sense for Scottish manufacturing to be reliant on shale gas from America while domestic reserves go untapped.

He added: “We’ve had to import it from the States because at the moment there are no other sources. If you have indigenous sources of gas it makes far more sense to supply your manufacturing industry from that gas. That brings with it employment, skills and tax dollars and means money being spent in the country rather than elsewhere.”

The company also revealed that it will consider expanding its operations at Grangemouth if fracking in Scotland is given the go-ahead. The facility, which accounts for four per cent of Scotland’s GDP and provides 80 per cent of the country’s fuel, has been performing at well under capacity for over a decade as a result of dwindling North Sea gas reserves, which it relied on, but is set to be given a new lease of life as a result of the imported fracked gas.

It is expected that after the first delivery later this year, US shale gas will be shipped to Scotland weekly for at least the next 15 years.

Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire owner of Ineos, has previously said he had receives assurances that the SNP is "not against" fracking and has acknowledged that like all fuel extraction techniques it involves some degree of risk.

Speaking last summer, he said: "What they've said to us is they're not against fracking. But what they do need to do is get comfortable with whether they're happy with the risks of fracking in Scotland."

However, Ms Sturgeon's latest statements suggest that she will ban fracking if even the slightest risk is identified by a research program.

The process, which sees water, sand and chemicals pumped deep underground to fracture shale rock and release gas, is strongly opposed by many environmentalists who warn of water contamination, earthquakes and a continued reliance of burning of fossil fuels. Scotland currently has control over fracking through planning powers and Holyrood is being granted full control of licensing.

Gerd Franken, CEO of Ineos Olefins and Polymers Europe, said: “The simple fact is Grangemouth has not been running at full capacity for years. That because of shale gas it can run at full capacity says it all. The future is much brighter now. If we had a local supply as well we could think about expanding.

“The fracking debate is being driven by perception and emotions and not facts and it’s a pity. If you look at the facts you just need to take the American experience where there have been more than a million wells.”