A HUGE tanker carrying US shale gas made its way up the Forth last week, reigniting the debate over whether fracking should be allowed in Scotland.

As was pointed out by more level-headed speakers at a timely shale gas conference in Glasgow three days later, the discussion has so far seen much heat and little light.

Those against the process talk of the 'environmental destruction' that would result from a process common across the Atlantic in near-apocalyptic terms, and appear unwilling to acknowledge the clear economic benefits, not least to the manufacturing sector and jobs, seen in the US.

The pro-fracking lobby, meanwhile, dismiss all opponents as consumers of discredited YouTube videos and pseudoscience, and are prone to making their own over-inflated claims. One such suggestion at Friday's event - that fracking would at a stroke transform chronically deprived post-industrial communities in the central belt into booming new Aberdeens - would surely fall into the category.

It has been more of an ideological stand-off than informed discussion. As Professor Karen Turner, Director at the Centre for Energy Policy at Strathclyde University argued at the conference, there is an urgent need to improve on the quality of debate.

That our society will need gas for the foreseeable future is unquestionable. So, is it right that Grangemouth, vital for our economy and infrastructure, now relies on shale gas shipped across the Atlantic while we refuse to exploit our own reserves? With North Sea reserves dwindling, should the UK rely on imports from places like Russia and Qatar where environmental and safety regulation is less robust? Are we content for jobs to be created overseas and not here? Have concerns over health and environmental concerns been considered in enough depth? What will the impact on nearby communities be? Could fracking really reemploy tens of thousands of workers made redundant by the oil price crash?

A raft of Scottish Government studies, ordered when it called a moratorium nearly two years ago, could help answer some of these tricky questions. Then, SNP ministers argued against "closing our minds to the potential opportunities of new technologies" while also acknowledging areas of concern.

But such measured talk has long since been jettisoned following vocal pressure from the SNP grassroots and political opposition. Nicola Sturgeon declared herself 'highly sceptical' of the process, long before seeing the results of any of the studies her Government ordered.

And while the debate over fracking will inevitably continue, the SNP Holyrood manifesto all-but makes clear what the final decision will be. The technique, it declared, would not be allowed unless it can be proved 'beyond any doubt' that it would not harm the environment, communities or public health.

As even Ineos boss and fracking champion Jim Ratcliffe has effectively acknowledged, this is an impossible bar to clear. Fracking, like any industrial process or indeed crossing the street, can never be completely risk free. A previous Scottish Government study found that risks could be effectively minimised through tough regulation, but there are risks nonetheless.

A sensible, grown up examination of the risks and opportunities of fracking is long overdue. Unfortunately, it may well come too late.