SNP ministers have been accused of creating an “Alice in Wonderland” situation over fracking, claiming it is both banned and not banned.

Tom Pickering, of the petrochemical giant Ineos, which runs the Grangemouth refinery, made the claim at the end of a three-day legal action at the Court of Session.

Ineos and Reach CSG, who have licences to frack in Scotland, are seeking to overturn the Scottish Government’s “effective ban” on the controversial gas extraction technique.

Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse told MSPs in October that he had created an effective ban on fracking by using planning powers to forbid councils from permitting it.

He told Holyrood it meant “fracking cannot and will not take place in Scotland”.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and other ministers also referred to a fracking “ban”

However on Tuesday, the Scottish Government’s lawyer, James Mure QC, told the Court that there was not a ban after all, and that ministers had yet to adopt a final position.

He said: “The concept of an effective ban is a gloss. It is the language of a press statement. “What they have done is to announce a preferred position on the issue.

"They have not yet adopted a position. Any position which the government will take has to undergo an environmental and strategic assessment.”

Mr Pickering, Operations Director for Ineos Shale, said he had been “astonished” by that.

Fracking challenge to begin at Court of Session

Outside court, after the judicial review hearing before Lord Pentland concluded, he said: “The position of the Scottish Government that has now been stated in court represents a staggering U-turn on the policy direction announced by the Energy Minister during Parliamentary debate in October last year, and by the First Minister when she said in Parliament ‘Scotland should welcome the fact that fracking in Scotland is banned’.

“The Scottish people and Parliament may find this revelation barely believable, when the Government has repeatedly told Holyrood that there is an effective and immediate ban.

“The developments during the judicial review process undermine the statements made by Ministers and cast further uncertainty and ambiguity across the policy framework for onshore unconventional oil and gas development in Scotland.

“We took Ministers and the Government at their word.

“Sadly, we seem to have reached the Alice in Wonderland situation where a business has to go to the Scottish courts to establish whether announcements in Holyrood can be taken at face value.

Fracking not banned after all, SNP government tells court

"As a result there is now an unpredictable and uncertain environment for business. Jobs rely on investment, but there is precious little in Scotland at the present time. “The current situation makes it harder than ever for business to invest in Scotland for the long term. We now respectfully await the judgement by Lord Pentland and will issue a further statement in due course.”

Tory MSP Alexander Burnett said: “It’s no wonder Ineos are furious at the pathetic stance of the SNP on this issue.

"Either Nicola Sturgeon is misleading the people of Scotland, or the lawyers she hired are misleading a court of law – they can’t both be right.

"This is a damaging fiasco, and calls into question almost anything this SNP government says and does.”

Nicola Sturgeon asked if she misled Scottish Parliament on fracking 'ban'

Ministers introduced a moratorium on fracking, which involves pumping water and chemicals at high pressure into shale beds to release gas, at the start of 2015.

Critics say it contributes to climate change and poses a risk to public health.

Ineos, who currently import shale gas from the US in supertankers, say a local supply could help sustain jobs and boost the economy.

According to legal papers lodged at court, the pursuers argued the government changed its policy in 2017.

They asked Lord Pentland to declare that the Scottish Government acted unlawfully in doing so.

They also want the court to declare that it is unlawful for the Scottish Ministers to use their powers under planning legislation to ban fracking in Scotland.

The petrochemical companies are also seeking damages - however the exact sum isn't mentioned in papers.

At the end of proceedings, Lord Pentland said he would issue his judgement at a later date.

He added: "I am grateful to parties for their assistance."

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: "The Scottish Government’s preferred position is that it does not support the development of unconventional oil and gas.

"As we have made clear, this position is subject to a Strategic Environmental Assessment. It remains inappropriate to comment further during the judicial review process.”