SNP ministers have extended a licence for fracking across central Scotland for a second time, almost two years after boasting in parliament that they had banned the practice.

The Scottish Government added a year to the unconventional gas licence that covers 400 square kilometres south and west of Falkirk until June 2020.

Energy minister Paul Wheelhouse admitted it would be “a disappointment to some”.

Anti-fracking campaigners said the extension “beggars belief”.

Known as petroleum exploration and development licence (PEDL) 162, the licence is 80 per cent owned by Grangemouth operators Ineos and 20% by Reach Coal Seam Gas Ltd.

The Scottish Government was criticised last year for extending the licence for 12-months, with environmentalists warning it added to the confusion over the status of fracking.

READ MORE: SNP ministers accused of 'Alice in Wonderland' stance on fracking ban

Three SNP MPs had also asked the government not to renew PEDL 162, which was first granted by the UK government to Reach Coal in 2008, with Ineos buying its share in 2014.

The licence had been due to expire on 30 June 2018, but the SNP government extended it using powers devolved to Holyrood months earlier.

The second year-long extension was revealed in a letter to the Scottish Tories at 4.30pm last Friday, the day after MSPs left Holyrood for summer recess.

Mr Wheelhouse said it would have been “a dereliction” of government responsibility not to have considered the licensees’ request for more time.

However, Mr Burnett said: “The fact that this was sneaked out at 4.30pm a day after MSPs had left for summer recess speaks volumes.

“The SNP’s ‘ban’ on fracking in Scotland has already been exposed in court as a sham.

“This simply confirms that Nicola Sturgeon’s government is still saying one thing in public, and quite another in private.

“Supporters of a ban, particularly Patrick Harvie and the Greens, must feel completely duped.”

Critics say fracking, which involves pumping pressurised water and chemicals into underground shale beds to release natural gas, is a risk to climate change and public health.

Advocates say it could support hundreds of new jobs and add millions to the economy.

Ineos, which currently imports US shale gas to Grangemouth to use as a chemical industry feedstock, has long expressed an interest in fracking in Scotland instead.

The Scottish Government’s preferred policy position is not to support fracking, but it has agonised for years without coming to a final decision on whether to allow it or not.

It set up an expert panel in 2013, introduced a moratorium in 2015, ordered more research in 2016, and then consulted on fracking in 2017.

In October 2017, Mr Wheelhouse appeared to have settled the matter, telling MSPs: “There is, in effect, a ban on unconventional oil and gas activities in Scotland.”

READ MORE: Cost of SNP 'fracking ban' court case revealed

A week later, a series of ministers also told the SNP conference there was a ban.

Nicola Sturgeon told delegates “Fracking is now banned in Scotland” and Deputy First Minister John Swinney said there was “a ban on fracking here in Scotland”.

However the following May, after Ineos challenged the ban in court, the government admitted it wasn’t banned after all and its lawyer explained the term was only a “PR gloss”.

The government spent £175,000 of taxpayers money on external legal advice for the case.

In March this year, just days before the government was due to give its final decision, the government announced yet more consultations - to clarify points raised in the last one - on the business, environmental and regulatory aspects.

READ MORE: SNP ministers delay decision on fracking yet again

Mr Wheelhouse said at the time that the government wanted to set out its position “as soon as possible after this process is complete”, but failed to put any timetable on it.

In his new letter to the Scottish Tories about the PEDL 162 extension, the minister claimed the government was “moving at pace” towards finalising its position.

However, as the latest consultations only closed on June 25, its assessments were ongoing.

He wrote: “I have approved an extension to the initial term of PEDL 162 for a period of 12 months. This will allow a period of time for the conclusion of the policy making process and the licensees to consider their position in the light of the finalised policy in due course.

“I appreciate that this may come as a disappointment to some but I assure you that, similar to the effect of the extension last summer, this does not change the Scottish Government’s preferred policy position of not supporting the development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland.

“I would like to stress that, in the meantime, no local authority can grant planning permission for any proposed fracking or coal bed methane project without advising Ministers, which then permits us to call the application in and we would defer any decision on any planning application that did come forward until the policymaking process on our preferred position is completed.”

Scottish LibDem MSP Liam McArthur said: "This is not reassuring news for those whose property sits on or near sites potentially earmarked for fracking, or indeed anyone who cares about protecting our beautiful natural environment.

“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. Now her minister has confirmed that Ineos’s license to frack has been extended once again.

“Ministers are dragging their feet on a real legislative ban and it is sending completely the wrong message when we should be committing to an all-out assault on Scotland’s emissions.

"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's Director Dr Richard Dixon said: "It is very disappointing that the Scottish Government has opted to extend this license again, when people locally and nationally have said no to fracking so clearly.

“The operators have already had two extensions to this license and despite having consents in place before the moratorium on fracking, they hadn't fulfilled their drilling commitments, so clearly this license should have been revoked.

"Extending this license adds to the confusion about whether fracking is to be banned or not and prolongs the uncertainty for the communities at risk.

"We urge the Scottish Government to move forward with its decision making process, legislate to ban fracking and draw a line under this issue for good.”

Donald Campbell, Chair of the Broad Alliance of community groups opposing fracking, said:

“It beggars belief that the Scottish Government would consider extending this licence for Unconventional Oil and Gas.

"The First Minister, Cabinet Secretaries, Ministers and MSPs have spoken most eloquently, stating that fracking will not happen in Scotland.

“Communities across the land rely on our elected representatives to stay true to their word and ensure that no licences are granted for Unconventional Oil and Gas."

Penny Cole, speaking on behalf of Frackwatch, said: “If the Scottish government means to ensure no fracking, why does it go on extending the existing licences? They have the power to end them - why don’t they exercise it?

"We thought we won when 60,000 people said no to fracking - but actually the threat remains.

"It means that communities have to stay on the alert; we can’t say ‘job done, our government has listened’”.