A FINAL decision on whether fracking takes place in Scotland is likely to be several years away because of legal challenges, it has emerged.

The Scottish Government is due to say later this year whether it will permit the controversial gas extraction technique, which could take place across the Central Belt.

However ministers are expecting the outcome to be subject to a judicial review by whichever side is disappointed, either industry or environmentalists.

Fracking involves pumping water, sand and chemicals underground into shale beds to free methane gas which can be used as fuel or feedstock for the petrochemical industry.

Advocates such as Ineos, owners of the Grangemouth refinery, say fracking in Scotland would generate jobs and avoid the current importation of shale gas from America.

However critics say fracking poses a risk to the environment, public health and the climate.

A recent consultation on the issue attracted around 60,000 responses, more than double the number generated by the 2012 consultation on an independence referendum.

SNP ministers introduced a moratorium on fracking at the start of 2015, and the party’s 2016 manifesto said it would be banned unless it could be proven “beyond doubt” to be safe.

Nicola Sturgeon has also said she is personally sceptical about it, but said her government would make its position clear on a ban by the end of December.

Labour, the LibDems and Greens support a ban, but the Tories want to permit fracking.

However a newspaper report quoted a senior government source saying that whatever the government and parliament decided would end up in court.

“Whichever way we go on this, we are expecting it to go to judicial review.

“That’s why we’re taking our time. We have got to get this right. Our decision has to be watertight. It has to have evidence behind it so that it can survive a judicial review.

“We would expect the losing side to take this to the courts, whichever side loses to the whole process has to be above reproach.”

Labour MSP Claudia Beamish said: “The SNP should have listened to the people of Scotland and banned fracking years ago.”

A Scottish Green spokesman said: “It is critical that any ban that might emerge is legally watertight, and that it reflects evidence of genuine concerns of communities across Scotland. Greens have stood with threatened communities from the outset and we are determined to deliver a ban."