The environment ministry is planning to hand many of its approval powers over industrial projects to local governments, a move it says is aimed at reducing regulatory interference.
But some experts fear the plan could lead to further environmental degradation.
"The Ministry of Environmental Protection has been working on a list of 'approval items' that will be passed on to local governments since the beginning of this year," said Beijing-based lawyer Xia Jun, adding that he expected the change to be "quite significant".
The law stipulates that an environmental impact assessment report is required before construction of any industrial project can start. The environment ministry is now responsible for reviewing such reports on nuclear projects, those involving large investments and those deemed ecologically sensitive.
The mechanism, even though it has some flaws such as poor transparency, has carried some weight in the ministry's struggle to put the brakes on local governments' pursuit of economic growth at all costs.
Details of the plan have not yet been unveiled, but Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian said in February that his ministry would "transfer approval power for environmental reviews to lower-level governments and simplify procedures, in a bid to cut red tape and improve efficiency", Xinhua reported. He said the move was in line with the new leadership's call for a reduction in government interference.
Deputy minister Wu Xiaoqing told a conference in April that the ministry would in future focus on "setting environmental thresholds" for regional development plans and strategies, and "let local governments make decisions on some individual projects", the China Youth Daily reported.
Calling the plan a "pollution formula", Li Bo, a senior adviser to the environmental advocacy group Friends of Nature, said it could eventually lead to a loosening of environmental supervision across the mainland, with growth-obsessed local governments likely to authorise projects that they viewed as economically viable while disregarding environmental concerns, further exacerbating pollution woes.
"At a time when the country is in desperate need of tightened environmental supervision, such a change could only be disastrous," Li said.
Similar opposition even exists within the ministry.
Deputy minister Pan Yue openly challenged the proposal to hand over such powers at a ministry meeting, a source close to the ministry said.
"Pan argued at the meeting that reviewing environmental impact assessment reports was the only policy tool the ministry had that could really bite in terms of preventing pollution," the source said.
Pan has routinely criticised the mainland's excessive focus on growth and the weakness of its environmental watchdogs. In 2005, he confronted a dozen powerful state-owned enterprises, including oil and power giants, and cancelled or suspended more than 30 large projects by rejecting their environmental impact reports.
Lawyer Xia Jun said the concerns expressed by Pan and Li were not unfounded.
For instance, approvals for incinerators had increased significantly since the environment ministry gave provincial governments the power to approve such projects in 2008.
"Reckless decisions by local governments to construct incinerators have already led to many public protests," Xia said.
Li and Xia also said they were worried the ministry might just be trying to dodge its responsibilities following a string of mass protests over the environmental impact of industrial projects, some of which it had approved.
Tens of thousands of residents in Shifang , Sichuan , protested over a multibillion-yuan molybdenum-copper alloy plant in July. After three days of rallies, the city government decided to scrap the project, which had already won ministry's approval and so should have met the public's environmental expectations. Some environmental law experts have suggested the ministry should be held responsible for the protests.
"In a way, the ministry seems want to pass on the hot potato to local governments," Xia said.
Li said it would be unwise for the ministry to think it could evade pressure by shifting responsibility to local governments.
"Public discontent will still target the ministry if the environment continues to worsen, no matter who gives approval to polluting projects," he said.