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China's environmentally stressed regions to curb industry in new rules

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BEIJING (Reuters) – China will order local governments to raise the approval threshold for new industrial projects and limit the number of polluting factories in regions where environmental conditions are already stressed, an environment official said on Friday.

The order will compel regions to draw up “access lists” of areas where factories can and cannot be built, and these restrictions could have a significant impact on energy-intensive sectors like steel, metal refining, petroleum and petrochemicals.

“It essentially aims to improve environmental quality and force local authorities to formulate a more sensible industrial plan,” said Liu Zhiquan, director of environmental impact assessments and emissions management at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), at a news briefing.

The ministry has sent experts to assist local governments to gather data on their air, water and soil to help them base their industry development plans on current environmental conditions.

Eleven provinces and regions along the Yangtze River, as well as the province of Qinghai in the northwest, have drafted access lists and will publish them by the end of 2019.

“(The environmental access list) is vital for local authorities in their future decision-making … It will help them avoid giving the go-ahead to some projects and then finding out they do not meet (environmental) requirements,” said Liu.

China’s remaining 19 provinces and regions will aim to complete draft access lists by the end of this year and release them for public consultation in 2020.

Liu said drawing up the access lists has been extremely difficult, with rulemakers dealing with huge amounts of ecological data, and constantly having to negotiate with governments at all levels to balance environmental protection with the needs of the local economy.

China has long warned that some heavily industrialised regions along its east coast have already exceeded their environmental capacity, meaning that factories and industrial plants are causing excess pollution and using more energy, land and water than surrounding areas can bear.

The three regions of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta produce more than half of the nation’s steel and oil products, for example, despite covering only 8% of the country’s total land area.

Beijing is also considering plans for an early warning system that would signal regions to halt development before the local environment was put under too much stress.

“For those governments that have already pushed out relocation plans for their heavy industries without taking environmental capacity into consideration, they would probably need to reshape their plans and trim other industries in their regions,” Liu told Reuters on the sideline of the briefing.

(Reporting by Muyu Xu and David Stanway; Editing by Tom Hogue)

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