SNP ministers have indefinitely delayed a decision on whether to allow fracking more than 18 months after boasting in parliament that they had banned it.

The Scottish Government was accused of cynical time-wasting after announcing it wanted to take more soundings on whether to permit the controversial gas extraction technique, six years after starting the process.

Energy minister Paul Wheelhouse said an eight-week consultation to clarify points raised in the last consultation would start after the Easter recess.

He said the government would respond to it and set out its final preferred policy position “as soon as possible” after that, but gave no target date.

A final decision had been due by the end of March.

Opposition parties and environmental campaigners said ministers were kicking the decision into the long grass.

Critics say fracking poses a risk to climate change and public health, while advocates say it could support hundreds of new jobs and add millions to the economy.

Ineos, the operators of the Grangemouth refinery, who currently import shale gas from the United States, have expressed an interest in sourcing it locally in Scotland.

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

The government’s preferred position is to not to support fracking, which involves pumping pressurised water and chemicals into underground shale beds to release natural gas.

However its progress has been painfully slow - it set up an expert panel in 2013, introduced a moratorium in 2015, ordered more research in 2016, and consulted on fracking in 2017.

In October 2017, ministers wrongly told parliament that fracking had been banned, but then admitted in court the following May that it hadn’t been banned after all.

The government’s lawyer said that had merely been a “PR gloss”.

READ MORE: Court rules fracking is not banned, despite SNP rhetoric

Last October, the government started consulting on the environment, business and regulatory aspects of not backing fracking.

“It is anticipated that ministers will inform parliament of our policy on the development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland in the first quarter of 2019,” he told MSPs.

However in a written Holyrood answer, Mr Wheelhouse said responses to that consultation had led the government “to form the view that it would be helpful to provide some further clarification on a number of points raised in response to the consultation documents, specifically regarding the preferred policy position and its objectives”.

It was therefore publishing “an addendum” to its previous environmental report, its preferred policy position statement and its partial business and regulatory impact assessment.

He said: “Responses to the addendum will be considered in detail prior to a final policy position being reached. It is anticipated that the addendum and related consultation documents will be published for consultation following the Easter Parliamentary recess.

“Views will be invited over a period of eight weeks, and the responses analysed prior to publication. Our final policy on unconventional oil and gas will be confirmed and adopted as soon as possible after this process is complete.”

READ MORE: SNP told to put fracking ban into law

Labour MSP Claudia Beamish said: “The SNP government is kicking this issue into the long grass yet again. This would be the third government public consultation on fracking and the fourth overall including the consultation on my member’s bill.

“This looks like a cynical attempt to try and keep a ban on fracking out of the upcoming Climate Change Bill. That would be unacceptable.

“Scotland has the power to ban fracking and Labour is examining the best way to do so, either through the Climate Change Bill or my member’s bill.

“The SNP has sat on the fence for too long here.”

Green MSP Mark Ruskell MSP said: “Communities all over Scotland who’ve fought back against fracking will be deeply frustrated at this news of yet more delay from the Scottish Government.

“QC advice is clear that Scotland has the powers to implement a legally watertight ban on this destructive and unsustainable practice and the Government should get on with doing that." 

LibDem MSP Liam McArthur MSP said: "Nicola Sturgeon stood up in Parliament and declared that fracking was banned, then her government’s lawyers stood up in the Court of Session and argued that it wasn’t.

“This confusion at the heart of the Scottish Government’s approach has left communities worrying about their futures.

"Liberal Democrats are clear that embarking on a whole new front of carbon-based fuels and energy production would do nothing to help meet our climate commitments."

Friends of the Earth Scotland, which recently published a legal opinion saying Holyrood could legislate to ban fracking much faster than the current process.

Head of Campaigns Mary Church said: “Communities on the frontline of this dirty industry who have been waiting for over four years for the Scottish Government to bring its long drawn out process on unconventional oil and gas to an end, now face even further delay. "Holyrood has the power to ban fracking - it’s time for the Scottish Government to stop dilly-dallying, have the courage of its convictions and legislate to stop the industry for good."