Vietnam has imported coal for several years: official

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Coal exporter Vietnam imported the fuel last month but it was not the first-ever shipment as previously reported by local media, an industry official said Monday.

"The 9,500-ton shipment from Indonesia in June was not the first; Vietnam started importing coal around five years ago with an annual volume between 400,000 and 500,000 tons," Le Minh Chuan, general director of state mining group Vinacomin, said at a meeting Monday.

Chuan said it was necessary to purchase coal even though the country is an exporter itself.

"In 2011 the country is set to produce 44 million tons of coal, but local demand is 27.5 million tons so we haveto export 16.54 million tons," he said. "If we kept the coal, there wouldn't be enough storage space for it."

Explaining the imports, he said the country needed to purchase coal to "make acquaintance with trading partners and prepare for infrastructure."

It was not the first time Vinacomin has defended its coal purchase over the past few weeks. Since the shipment from Indonesia arrived on June 13, critics have said the group should have halted exports to ensure local supply so that it does not have to depend on foreign sources.

Vinacomin officials, however, argued that the cheap imports would be used to power local steel and cement plants while Vietnamese coal is of higher quality and thus better suited for export.

Chuan said at Monday's meeting that the company would continue to import the fuel this year.

According to news website VnExpress, Vinacomin plans to import about 10 million tons of coal in 2012, and this is expected to gradually increase to 100 million tons by 2020.

Vietnam is set to face a serious coal shortage in 2020, with a shortfall of up to 66 million tons.

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