THE new Cabinet Secretary tasked with deciding whether or not to allow fracking is facing a conflict of interest on the issue, as his own constituency is a potential hot-spot for the controversial gas technology.

Half of Keith Brown’s Clackmannanshire and Dunblane seat lies inside a potential fracking zone licensed by Ineos, the owners of Grangemouth and Scotland’s main player in fracking.

Ineos recently held a public meeting in Alloa, in Clackmannanshire, to promote fracking.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves drilling into underground shale beds then pumping in water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to release trapped methane gas.

Ineos currently imports shale gas from the US for use as feedstock in its chemical works, but wants to source it locally from the shale beds under the central belt.

Critics say fracking is a risk to public health, the environment and climate change.

The previous energy minister, Fergus Ewing, faced no constituency conflict, as drilling was not a possibility in his Highlands seat. However Brown's seat sits in the the prime shale zone north of the border, known as the Midland Valley of Scotland.

In 2014, the British Geological Survey identified large parts of his constituency as a “prospective for oil-mature” shale and “prospective for gas-mature” shale.

Half his seat lies inside a 330-square-kilometre zone named PEDL 133, an area licensed by the UK Government for hydrocarbon exploration (though not yet extraction) which includes Grangemouth.

The PEDL 133 licence was acquired in 2008 by Dart Energy, but in the last two years it has been bought out by Ineos, giving the firm exclusive exploration rights in Brown’s backyard.

Brown is understood to have already asked his officials about possible conflicts.

Some of Brown’s constituents may back fracking because of financial incentives for allowing it in their community, while others are likely to oppose it on safety grounds. The area is already home to two anti-fracking groups.

Brown, 54, a former infrastructure secretary, was reshuffled into the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work portfolio last week.

His responsibilities include “energy and energy consent”, giving him a key role in deciding whether to permit fracking once the current moratorium comes to an end.

The government last night insisted Brown’s deputy, Paul Wheelhouse, would handle decisions on any individual licences or energy consents. However, that still leaves Brown involved in the master decision on fracking from which all local decisions would flow.

Green environment spokesman Mark Ruskell said: “Keith Brown will be well aware of the strong community opposition to fracking, coal-bed methane and underground coal gasification in the Forth Valley.

“Ineos are already on a charm offensive in the region, when really we should be making clear to them and other drilling firms that a risky and unnecessary push for more fossil fuels isn’t going to happen. Our energies should be going into viable, renewable alternatives.”

Tory MSP Alex Johnstone said: “It was bad enough that Fergus Ewing and Nicola Sturgeon were at loggerheads on this. Now we have a new problem in the form of Mr Ewing's successor having all kinds of local conflicts.

"The Scottish Government needs to stop messing about on fracking and make sure Scotland capitalises on this opportunity."

In late 2014, Brown said he had “serious concerns about fracking”.

Ewing announced a moratorium a few months later to allow research into its implications for public health, transport, seismic activity, the economy and climate change.

The report is due this summer, followed by a public consultation.

The SNP manifesto said the party was “deeply sceptical about fracking”, adding: “Unless it can be proven beyond any doubt that there is no risk to health, communities or the environment, there will be no fracking… in Scotland.”

However science deals in probabilities rather than absolute certainties such as “beyond any doubt” or “no risk”, and during the election Sturgeon back-pedalled and admitted a “substantial risk” to the environment might be the threshold for a ban instead.

Labour, the LibDems and Greens all want to ban fracking, while the Tories want to allow it.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We have put in place a moratorium to ensure that no unconventional oil and gas exploration can take place in Scotland.

“In view of the potential risks presented, the Scottish Government ?is committed to gathering evidence on this industry and its potential health, environmental and economic impacts.

“A comprehensive programme of research is already under way, which will be followed by a full public consultation so that any decision is based on the evidence and public opinion.

“In line with the Ministerial Code of Conduct, no Minister would be involved in any planning or energy consents decision if this could result in a conflict of interest in his or her constituency.”