Scottish fracking consultation launched
The Scottish government has launched a public consultation on whether unconventional oil and gas extraction (UOG) should be allowed in the country.
A moratorium on UOG, which includes hydraulic fracking, has been in place since January 2015.
Since then, the government has been examining the evidence before deciding whether or not a full ban should be put in place.
A final decision is expected to be made later this year.
The public consultation, which has seen the creation of a dedicated website, follows the publication in November of six reports examining the potential economic, health and environmental impact of fracking.
- What do the Scottish government's fracking reports say?
- What is fracking and why is it controversial?
- View the consultation website
The Scottish Parliament had previously voted in favour of a ban - which saw Labour, the Scottish Greens and Liberal Democrats back a ban, while the Conservatives opposed it and the SNP abstained.
Launching the consultation, which will run until 31 May, Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse said the government had attempted to present "impartial, independent information on unconventional oil and gas in order to encourage informed dialogue and debate".
He said: "This consultation does not set out or advocate a preferred Scottish government position or policy. Instead, we want to create space for dialogue and allow different perspectives to come forward.
"As most of Scotland's unconventional oil and gas deposits occur in and around former coalfields and oil shale fields in Scotland's Central Belt, which contains some of the most densely-populated areas of the country, as well as in the area around Canonbie, Dumfriesshire, it is vitally important that communities, businesses and interest groups from across Scotland have an opportunity to put their views across."
Mr Wheelhouse said the responses would be independently analysed before the government makes its final recommendation.
He added: "In doing so, we will give careful consideration to the extraction methods for both shale oil and gas, and coal bed methane.
"We will then ask members of the Scottish Parliament to vote on our recommendation, and we will come to a final decision by the end of 2017 on whether or not unconventional oil and gas has a role in Scotland's energy mix."
Fracking allows drilling firms to access difficult-to-reach resources of oil and gas.
But anti-fracking campaigners argue it can cause environmental damage, and that it is distracting energy firms and governments from investing in renewable sources of energy by encouraging continued reliance on fossil fuels.
The Scottish government has previously said it "cannot support" underground coal gasification (UCG), a different technology which extracts gas from coal seams that are too deep underground to be mined using traditional methods.
Energy firm Cluff Natural Resources had planned to build the UK's first deep offshore UCG plant at Kincardine in Fife, which would have extracted gas from coal seams under the Firth of Forth.
How have opposition parties reacted?
Responding to the announcement, the Scottish Greens said they would be doing "everything possible" to ensure that there is a "shift away from gas and other fossil fuels".
Mark Ruskell MSP explained: "If necessary, we'll amend the forthcoming climate bill to make sure that it stays in the ground.
"The choice facing us now is to invest in the huge opportunities of renewable energy, offering more secure, high quality employment than will be lost as the fossil fuel age passes; or stick with the status quo in the face of more redundancies and financial instability."
Scottish Labour's environment spokeswoman, Claudia Beamish, believed the consultation was evidence that the SNP government was "once again" kicking a final decision on fracking into the long grass.
She said: "Voters going to the polls in May's important local elections still won't know the SNP's position on fracking. It's time for Nationalist ministers to get off the fence and back Labour's call for a ban on fracking in Scotland.
"I am calling for the government to make a full statement to parliament on this issue. It's essential that the public hears a full explanation from nationalist ministers."
Scottish Liberal Democrat energy spokesman Liam McArthur said he believed the government was on the "long and slow road" towards banning fracking, but was "drawing out their decision as long as possible."