Vietnam is now likely to import coal only from 2015, not 2013 as earlier forecast since many thermal power plants have fallen behind schedule.

The steering committee managing coal imports said, however, that firms should start looking for foreign coal suppliers immediately to ensure there is no delay.

"Besides Australia and Indonesia, Vietnam can also source coal from Russia by buying stakes in mines there or purchasing the right to mine or buy coal," Nguyen Manh Quan, a member of the committee and the head of the Heavy Industry Department, said.

But he was unsure if power-plant investors would begin looking for coal sources any time soon.

Tran Chien Thang, deputy general director of the Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Group (Vinacomin), said the Government had tasked his firm with importing coal for power plants but no investor had discussed the issue yet.

"Enterprises, especially State-owned ones, prefer local sources because costs are partly subsidised by the Government," Quan said.

A private firm recently signed an agreement with a foreign supplier to buy coal for 20 years and was willing to import more to supply other companies, Ta Van Huong, director of the Energy Department, said.

An Vien Group and VinCom Group informed the Ministry of Industry Trade that they could help local firms source coal from Russia, Minister of Industry and Trade Le Duong Quang said.

However, more companies can enter the coal import business as long as they follow Government rules, according to the ministry .

The steering committee will draft a legal framework to regulate coal imports.

It is not clear yet but Vietnam may have to import between 3 million and 15 million tonnes of coal a year by 2015 – and 21 million to 40 million by 2020 – as more and more coal-fired power plants are built, Vinacomin has said./.