Regulation Isn’t Smart Enough

Debate reveals chemical engineers desire for more innovation.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

“Chemical engineers believe that the world needs more innovation and less regulation.”  So said the motion debated at ChemEng08, a forum sponsored by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Rugby, U.K., from Oct. 28-30, in Birmingham, U.K.

Ian Shott, IChemE’s deputy president, argued for less regulation, according to an Oct. 30 report in IChemE’s magazine TCE ( Excessive regulation hampers innovation, he said. Judith Hackitt, chair of the U.K. regulatory body, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE),  argued the opposite view — while conceding that she agreed with Shott.
Nigel Hirst, managing director of Haden Freeman, one of the U.K.’s leading independent engineering and consulting companies then laid out his three rules of regulation: 1) if there are no rational grounds for regulations — don’t have them; 2) review and repeal regulations every five years; 3) promote innovation, don’t kill it. “Otherwise we have so much work for so little gain,” he said.

Regulation doesn’t eliminate negative consequences, explained Hirst, noting that while the banking sector is the most regulated in the world that hasn’t prevented products coming to market and seeding the current financial crisis.

The audience after voting 2:1 in favor of Shott and Hirst, concluded that the motion should instead be worded: “Chemical engineers believe that the world needs more innovation and smart regulation.”

Meanwhile, “smart” was the very last word used by Process Engineering Online ( readers on Oct. 24 to describe the latest vote by the European Parliament’s Environment Committee. The magazine reported that the Committee’s members were euphoric after approving proposals that will require power generators to pay for all emissions after 2013 and potentially ban building of all new coal-fired power stations after 2015.

When asked about the likely impact of these decisions on the supply of affordable energy to homes, hospitals and factories in Europe, Chris Davies, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the North West of England who championed the coal-fired power ban, reportedly said “From my perspective I don't care. I am in the business of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”

If this decision is left unchecked, the “decisions of a detached elite in the European Parliament will soon become law and threaten the supply of affordable energy to the ordinary people in the region as well as the competitiveness of many process operators,” protested Process Engineering, which then called for readers’ reactions.

One engineering manager responded that it was difficult to accept that Britain and Europe can afford to take a unilateral approach if China and other countries don’t do the same. “I don’t believe it is impossible to clean the coal process up and we do have good resources of coal,” he added.

Another reply, from a manager at one of the world’s leading manufacturers of particulate emissions monitors, pointed out that the company had to cut costs, force through new working practices and comply with an ever-growing list of health and safety initiatives and red tape. He wondered how naïve, publicity seeking individuals end up having such a damaging influence on U.K. manufacturing.

A third, from a process control equipment company, described the situation as “Alice in Wonderland” and suggested that all MEPs — and anyone thinking of pursuing careers in politics — should be sent on a long awareness session to include basic engineering, science and common sense. 

One reader agreed with the MEP, saying that we are still a million miles away from when companies and the public will start to really care about emissions — and even further away from when they will start to modify their behavior. A ten-fold increase in the price of auto fuel would encourage people to  adjust their ludicrously wasteful lifestyles, that person suggested.
Back in the real world, however, U.K. Environment Minister Huw Irranca-Davies issued a statement to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) stating that it’s vital for such companies to find out exactly how the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations could affect their businesses. Any action needed must be taken before Dec. 1.

Given REACH’s very wide scope, it’s likely that almost every sector of U.K. business and industry will be affected in some way – and the government estimates that there are around 4.7 million SMEs in the country. U.S. companies also will feel its impact (

Clearly what’s exercising the Minister is that since REACH’s pre-registration period began on June 1, just 1,207 companies’ signed on by mid-September “Pre-registration closes on 1 December and it is in your interests to beat this deadline,” warns the statement.

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