FRACKING could provide “important benefits” for the petrochemical sector, SNP ministers said yesterday as they launched a public consultation on the controversial gas technology.

The Scottish Government singled out the Ineos refinery at Grangemouth as a potential beneficiary, as it already uses imported shale gas from America.

Announcing a four-month consultation on whether to end the two-year-old moratorium on drilling for "unconventional oil and gas" north of the border, energy minister Paul Wheelhouse said the Scottish Government would make its final decision by the end of 2017.

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Opposition parties accused the government of dragging out the process until well beyond May's council elections for fear of a voter backlash.

The SNP's Holyrood manifesto said it would not allow fracking unless it was “proven beyond any doubt that there is no risk to health, communities or the environment”.

However there was no such emphatic statement in the consultation, which referred to possible ways to “manage” and “mitigate” risks instead.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves forcing water and chemicals at high pressure deep underground into shale beds to release gas used as fuel or in the chemical industry.

The central Scotland shale beds are estimated to contain up to 134 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Critics say releasing it would risk pollution, damage public health and worsen climate change.

In its consultation, the Government did not come down for or against fracking, and acknowledged there was widespread public concern about its potential impact.

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But it said a “precautionary approach” could address health fears, with “a range of mitigation measures”, including best practice and community engagement.

While fracking would not boost the overall economy, it could provide a “positive effect on the petrochemical industry”, it added, highlighting Grangemouth.

Ineos, which runs the massive site, has previously lobbied the SNP to allow fracking in Scotland, although it is currently focused on shale gas south of the border.

Mr Wheelhouse said: “The debate on the future of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland has proven both complex and controversial. We want to create space for dialogue and allow different perspectives to come forward.

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"Once the consultation closes and the responses have been independently analysed, we will then consider the full range of evidence, and make our recommendation. In doing so, we will give careful consideration to the extraction methods for both shale oil and gas, and coal bed methane.”

The Scottish Tories, the only party at Holyrood openly in favour of fracking, said the timescale showed how “spineless” the SNP was on the issue.

Tory energy spokesman Alexander Burnett said: “The SNP should be looking at the potential for an economic boom and a more secure supply of power for people in Scotland.

“Instead it’s pandering to the left of the party because it doesn’t want to lose votes in May’s council elections. It is well-established that fracking can be explored safely and sensitively, yet the Scottish Government seems reluctant to even do that.

“And all the while, Scotland risks losing business surrounding the technology south of the border, where the government is altogether more open-minded on this.”

Scottish Labour said the consultation had kicked fracking “into the long grass”.

Environment spokesperson Claudia Beamish, who has introduced a member’s Bill to ban fracking, said: “Voters going to the polls in May still won't know the SNP's position on fracking.

“This is about Scotland’s future, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the condition we leave our planet in for our children and our grandchildren.

“The climate science is clear – the last thing we need is another fossil fuel. We need to fulfil Scotland’s renewables potential and we can’t do that if we allow fracking in our communities."

Green MSP Mark Ruskell said: “The evidence to ban fracking already exists because we have more fossil fuels than we can burn if we want to limit climate change.

“A ban on fracking will allow us to focus on stable jobs in energy efficiency and renewables.”