Vaclav Smil has spent a 35-year career establishing a reputation as a world-renowned energy expert from his office at the University of Manitoba but he could easily ditch the halls of academia and go on tour as The Energy Comic.
Smil had the normally sombre crowd who attend the Frontier Centre for Public Policy luncheons in stitches Wednesday with his admittedly politically incorrect jabs. In his heavily accented Czech accent and deploying a rapid-fire, scatter-gun approach, Smil attacked the legitimacy of several sacred cows – Alberta’s tarsands project, ethanol alternative fuels, windmills and Kyoto.
Alberta’s tarsands project “is a scam, it’s nonsense, it’s a crime against nature,” Smil said. “It should never have been done.”
Smil said the oil industry is destroying Alberta’s environment by squeezing oil from rock, wasting scarce natural gas and clean water to produce oil that will only be wasted in the tanks of gas-guzzling SUVs.
Smil said that the billions of dollars invested in the oilsands and the resulting environmental devastation will be for naught when peace comes to the Middle East and the price of crude oil drops to $15, making Alberta’s oilsands uneconomical.
“Even the Irish stopped killing each other,” Smil said of the likelihood of peace between Arabs and Israelis. “When the Middle East is settled, you’ll have tens of thousands of people trekking back to Winnipeg from Calgary.”
Smil came across as a big proponent of conservation, adding more savings could be had from simple moves – using more gas-efficient vehicles, switching to compact bulbs, installing programmable digital thermostats, installing triple-glazed windows – than by investing billions of dollars in crazy schemes to find new sources of energy.
The Arab countries would beg the West to buy their oil, he said, if simple conservation methods were adopted. “As a scientist, I am speechless at what we will or will not do instead of doing some very simple things,” Smil said.
Smil said he didn’t understand why people went into palpitations when the price of gas approached $1 per litre but they have no objections to paying twice that much for the same amount of soft drink or several hundreds times that for a small bottle of perfume.
The Harper government’s failure to go along with the Kyoto objectives is irrelevant in the big scheme of things, Smil said, explaining that even if all the countries in the world were able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels, it would all be immediately negated over a two-week period by China’s coal production.
Like Alberta’s oilsands, Smil said the recent focus on ethanol as an environment-friendly fuel alternative is also misguided and dangerous.
“Ethanol is my favourite topic because this is absolutely criminal. This is egregious, excessive, incredible, unspeakable crime,” he said, likening ethanol proponents to the Mafia.
Smil said there are no dollar savings or environmental benefits to ethanol when considering the amount of irrigation and fertilizer that must be added to the crops that are processed into ethanol.
Manitoba’s recent embrace of wind turbines as a safe energy provider is also misdirected, he said.
He said the same amount of power produced by the windmills could be saved from current consumption if households switched from incandescent bulbs to the new compact bulbs.