Cuts in the imports, which displace around six million tons of UK coal a year, are a key part of proposals by the Trade and Industry Select Committee to expand the coal market by up to 19 million tons.
Ministers believe that to meddle with the link to France would cause problems under the Treaty of Rome and could result in the Government making hefty compensation payments. However, on Monday, Richard Caborn, the chairman of the select committee, said that dealing with the link requires only political will.
In spite of expectations that a White Paper on energy will be published next week, ministers appear to be no nearer a solution to the problem of the 31 threatened coal-mines and 30,000 miners faced with redundancy.
One frontrunner in terms of options is cutting back on profitable opencast mining in favour of deep mines. However, because of the scale of the problem, the Government has not ruled out introducing legislation to force the electricity generators, National Power and PowerGen, to buy more coal than they want.
The generators, which account for the bulk of British Coal's output, have offered to buy substantial extra coal over the next five years, but that does not meet the Government's demands. It is believed that National Power and PowerGen have said that they can offer no more in extra sales because they would be unable to find a market for the electricity generated from the coal.
Industry sources believe that the Government is becoming increasingly desperate in its attempts to save enough mines to satisfy Conservative rebels. Without action to expand the coal market at the expense of gas, nuclear power or French electricity, it seems unlikely that extra sales of even 12 million tons a year could be achieved. Even then, only eight deep mines might be saved.