THE Scottish Government has distanced itself from an official document which suggests it did not support a permanent ban on fracking just days before it announced it had "effectively" outlawed the controversial practice.

Previously unseen papers state ministers do not “support the notion of a permanent ban” because technology could improve and public attitudes may shift in the future.

The position stands in stark contrast to the later statements of senior SNP figures, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insisting: “Fracking is being banned in Scotland, end of story.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat energy spokesman Liam McArthur said it “does not say a lot for the way in which the Scottish Government has handled this policy that even at the 11th hour officials did not know whether ministers intended to permanently ban fracking or not”.

He added: "Moreover, there will be more than a few eyebrows raised in the communities who were promised that the threat of fracking had been removed, only to find out that the Government's promise potentially came with an asterisk attached."

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

Research found it could be worth an estimated £1.2 billion to Scotland’s economy over the period to 2062, but critics argue it contributes to climate change and poses a public health risk.

Official documents released under Freedom of Information, written just days before energy minister Paul Wheelhouse outlined the Scottish Government’s final position on fracking in October, detail how ministers planned to announce their “carefully considered” judgement.

It said the Government does not back the development of a fracking industry in Scotland.

But it adds that Mr Wheelhouse should “set out that the Scottish Government does not support the notion of a permanent ban as it is impossible to predict with any certainty what kind of clean energy technologies may be available in the decades to come, or future public attitudes”.

Mr Wheelhouse made no mention of this in his statement to MSPs less than two weeks later. Instead, he said fracking had been “effectively” banned, adding: “The decision that I am announcing means that fracking cannot and will not take place in Scotland.”

Challenged by Green MSP Mark Ruskell over whether this amounted to a permanent ban, Mr Wheelhouse said he was “taken aback” and suggested Mr Ruskell had not been listening.

He went on: “I give reassurance – I tried to make it crystal clear in my statement – that there is, in effect, a ban on unconventional oil and gas activities in Scotland.”

Earlier this year, a Scottish Government lawyer told a court it had not in fact banned fracking, insisting this was "the language of a press statement". It said the policymaking process is still ongoing, while ministers had simply announced "a preferred position".

Opponents accused the SNP of hedging its bets instead of implementing a real ban.

Scottish Labour’s environment spokesperson Claudia Beamish MSP said it was time for the SNP to "respect the vote of the Scottish Parliament and show its clear commitment to a real ban of on-shore fracking in Scotland.”

Mr Ruskell said: "The change in tone between the Sir Humphrey-style hedge-your-bets briefing and Paul Wheelhouse's bullish statement shows that SNP ministers knew that they could sit on the fence no longer."

Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said there was “clearly a lot of furious debate” within the Government in the days leading up to the announcement of a ban.

He said: “We’re delighted that fracking cannot take place in Scotland but we want the Scottish Government to go beyond the current ban in policy and enact a water-tight ban in law.”

A Government spokesman said the “handling plan” was written by officials to provide recommendations, adding that Mr Wheelhouse “did not agree with the specific recommendation referred to”, and so did not include it in his statement.

He added: “As Mr Wheelhouse has repeatedly made clear in parliament, the Scottish Government’s preferred position is not to support unconventional oil and gas extraction in Scotland. This position has been endorsed by MSPs of all parties and we are currently completing the Strategic Environmental Assessment of our preferred policy.”

He said the Government had not been opposed to a permanent ban when the document was written, but did not explain how this continued to be included in the handling plan, weeks after ministers had met to discuss their stance.