Hub Interview

The Just Transition, Indigenous resource development, and moon mining: Heather Exner-Pirot on crafting an ambitious yet pragmatic energy policy

Climate action protestors gather in front of the PMO office to call on Justin Trudeau to prioritize the passage of the Just Transition Act in Parliament as the 44th session of Parliament start in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Heather Exner-Pirot, director of natural resources, energy, and environment at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and special advisor to the Business Council of Canada, about climate change, energy, and Indigenous economic development and the possible tradeoffs, as well as the future of lunar mining.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Heather Exner-Pirot, the director of energy natural resources and the environment at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a special advisor to the Business Council of Canada, and a leading policy thinker on a set of issues that sit at the intersection between climate change, energy, and Indigenous economic development. I’m grateful to speak with her about these issues, including how we ought to think about the possible trade-offs between them, what she means when she talks about energy policy in an age of pragmatism, and why mining on the moon is something that Canada should prioritize. Heather, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: Great to be here, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with the subject of tradeoffs. The Trudeau government has often said that the environment and the economy go hand in hand. It’s a nice thought, but it seems to me that it risks precluding a more useful debate about the inherent trade-offs between ambitious climate goals, the cost of the energy transition, and the best means to mitigating those costs, including for specific industries and their workers. You’ve written, for instance, that the notion of a so-called ‘Just Transition’ has “no basis in economic reality.” As a starting point, how do you think about these questions? What are some of the trade-offs inherent to our climate goals, and how should we think about them?

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: Yeah, so I would say for most of the last 200 years, we didn’t think about the environment, certainly not about the climate as any kind of externality. It was just, we were ravaging and surviving. For most of human history, all we did was survive, and the environment was a secondary factor. Certainly for Indigenous peoples, and I’ve learned this lesson, caring for the environment was pretty critical to their survival; for farmers, caring for the environment is pretty critical to their survival. But in terms of industrialization, it was kind of a matter of just using the resources that you could. And so there was an imbalance, certainly.

So I think since in 1960s and 1970s, certainly there’s been an environmental movement to recentre, and that’s been very good. But now we’ve gotten, I think in the last 10 years, into some of the green fantasy establishment, where almost every policy, almost every discussion, is centred through a lens of climate change.

Now we’re starting to see there was an awakening. I think most people in the global South, most governments in the global South, thought there was some other balancing that needed to be considered. In Europe and Canada, in some parts the United States, not as much because we weren’t just surviving anymore. Because you could take for granted all that material well-being.

But now I think after the Russian war there has been the opening to rebalance the conversation, as they say, to make it more pragmatic—to understand that energy poverty is a real thing. Energy security is a real thing. We cannot live today in 2023 without fossil fuels. Probably one or two billion of us could live without fossil fuels, and the other couple billion, if we had no fossil fuels tomorrow, would die within a year. So there’s a growing sense that we need to think about how we manage this energy transition so it’s not chaotic, so that the bottom billion don’t starve, don’t get more poor. And honestly, that’s what we saw last year. We saw hundreds of thousands, millions more people fall into extreme poverty, fall into famine.

So thinking about doing this not in an ideological way where everything we do is only through a lens of reducing emissions, but doing that in partnership with making sure that our material well-being is met.

SEAN SPEER: Previously released government documents indicate that the pursuit of the target of net zero emissions will be disruptive for some parts of the economy—that’s pretty intuitive—and the oil and gas sector is amongst those projected to be disproportionately affected, which seems notable since it’s a pretty significant source of employment, particularly in Alberta, and has played a key role in recent decades of providing labour demand for mid-skilled workers.

It’s interesting, though, Heather, that while we’ve spent a lot of time on the distributional effects of the carbon tax on household budgets, there hasn’t seemed to be the same attention paid to the distributional effects of employment losses from stringent climate policies across regions or sectors. What do you think is behind that? Why do you think so much policy scholarship, and government policymaking seems to diminish the employment risks for certain people and places?

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: So this idea of a “just transition”, again, when you look at it in a Canadian context, in a global commodities context, around 2015 I think is when the idea of a just transition starts to circulate in global circles. What happened then? It was the commodities bust. So we were in a commodities boom from about 2004 to 2014. Energy was expensive. People remember a barrel hit $147 in 2008 dollars, which would be like $250 today. Very expensive oil. It was a crisis. And then what happened? The shale revolution. The Americans became the world’s biggest producer instead of the world’s biggest importer. We got another 10 million barrels a day on the market, and it made energy cheap. So starting in 2015, energy is cheap. And if you look at the oil sands, the oil sands had the very bad luck of coming online almost at the exact same time as shale did.

It wasn’t more expensive—at $180 a barrel it was still very profitable. But then now we’re competing with the United States at the exact time that they stopped needing our oil. And so it looked like the oil patch in Canada was very down. People did lose their jobs. We lost, I think, 100,000 jobs in Alberta. A tremendous amount. It was so huge.

I think it gave people the idea that we were transitioning. We didn’t need that oil anymore. There was no market for the oil. But it’s actually a cycle, not a transition. And now we’re seeing the other side of that cycle. And the oil sands—we saw it last year, but even at $80 WTI, they are printing money right now. And if we get to $100, most people expect we will get to $100 in the next six months. It’s just pure cash flow on top of that. The royalties that Alberta is getting from the oil sands, again, we’re not talking about $1 or $2 billion; we’re talking about $10 or $15 billion just to the province.

So the jobs are there. In January, when they [the federal government] were pushing through “just transition” legislation, which thankfully they thought better of, but in January when they were doing that, I think the unemployment rate in the oil patch was like 2.1 percent. So they’re saying, “Oh, we need to help, and this is the line. We need to help these poor oil and gas workers. There are no more jobs for them. They’ve lost their jobs.” Well, that was a 2015 reality for sure, but it had to do with the cycle and the markets and not with an end of global demand for oil. People also had a fantasy that 2019 was going to be the peak in global oil demand. Whether that’s good or not, it wasn’t the peak. We’re going to hit the peak again this year, and we’re going to hit the peak every year for the next decade, probably, for sure. So sometime in the 2030s, I hope, we all hope, that we reduce our global oil demand, but there is absolutely no reason to artificially shut in Canadian oil and gas, especially as shale is starting to plateau and decline, especially as Russia and OPEC are getting a larger global market share.

SEAN SPEER: One of the practical challenges with the net zero target is that it involves aligning a lot of different policies. The electric vehicle mandate is a good example. For it to ultimately work, we need to align mining regulations with manufacturing incentives and charging infrastructure and broader electrification and consumer demand and all the rest. You wrote in a recent op-ed that Canadian climate policy increasingly looks like a “Jenga Tower.”

Having spent some time in government myself, while I think it’s a good analogy, I’m somewhat sympathetic that it’s hard, perhaps even impossible, to pull so many policy leavers including some that reside at different orders of government at the same time. Heather, talk about the inherent challenge of building a coherent and mutually supporting climate strategy. Are we going to have to just live with a certain amount of inefficiency, transaction costs, and suboptimal outcomes?

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: So from a purely economic theoretical perspective, no, that’s what the carbon tax is for. The carbon tax makes all those decisions for you. It makes carbon into whatever they say, an externality. It puts a price on carbon. And so the market will find all the ways that are slightly cheaper with slightly less carbon emissions. Even from a small-“c” conservative perspective, I can say that makes sense. That seems like the lowest transaction costs, the most efficient way to reduce emissions if you agree carbon is bad and bad for the environment and human health. So if they did that, they got it through, they convinced us all, then what are these other four emissions reduction plans on top of that for?

So I’ll give you an example. The ZEV mandate, zero-emissions vehicle mandate. The equivalent carbon tax of the ZEV mandate in Canada is about $400 per ton. So right now we’re paying, I don’t know, what are we at, $65 or $75 dollars; it’s going up to $170. And the ZEV mandate is the equivalent of a $400 tax. So like a very expensive, very inefficient way. I think in Norway, everyone loves how many electric vehicles Norway has. Their subsidies are the equivalent of $700 a ton. There are far cheaper ways like reducing methane emissions, which you can do for $20, $40, $60 dollars, depending on the source, to reduce emissions. If you just cared about reducing emissions, you wouldn’t put money into a battery factor. You wouldn’t put money into ZEV subsidies.

And when I talk about it, the Jenga Tower—other people call it a pancake, other people call it Frankenstein—it’s Soviet-style planning. You think from Ottawa you can put in these mandates and control the economy that way? Like I say, so we have clean fuel regulations where you have to make the fuel cleaner. It means importing all of that ethanol from the United States is what it means. But then they want all the refiners to invest to have all this clean fuel that is now a mandate as of today. But also refiners, we don’t want any demand for your product by 2035 when we want to have an electric vehicle. So why would any refiner invest? And this is Irving Oil’s position. They’re threatening to leave New Brunswick, which is a huge deal for Atlantic Canada. Why would they invest the money into improving their refineries and changing their fuel makeup, very expensive, different jurisdictions, they had to do it for different customers, extremely inefficient. But in 2035, we don’t want any demand for your product.

And then we have a ZEV mandate, at the same time we say we also need a clean electricity standard. So we have to replace all of our aging current electricity infrastructure. We have to make all the natural gas and coal into clean electricity somehow with our regulatory system. And by the way, we’re going to add 25 percent demand to that system with our electric vehicle mandate. So it’s physically impossible. And then what I look at, the critical minerals do not exist in this world. The mines do not exist in the world. Not only that, Canada’s competing with the United States, which has 12 times the buying power, 12 times the money, and the European Union who actually needs to get off oil and gas. Ours is a choice. Theirs is energy security, but we’re all going to compete over the same small amount of transponders and copper. And not to mention the global South—that’s just the 1 billion of us. That’s the rich billion of us. We are going to leave nothing for the global South to electrify because we’re competing over these scarce resources. So again, we are doing insane things that are predictably insane. Okay, just put in the carbon tax and let the market decide.

SEAN SPEER: If I can just say in parentheses, Heather, you mentioned projections that the electric vehicle mandate would lead to a 25 percent increase in electricity demand, which is a piece of the puzzle that is often ignored from these debates. The idea that you could impose a mandate and somehow it would resolve itself without accounting for the various ways in which such a fundamental transition in transportation would have secondary effects or secondary consequences is a good example I think of your Jenga Tower metaphor.

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: It is. I just want to add one thing there, Sean, because people need to think about this, is redundancy in energy really matters. When you say we’re going to electrify everything, that sounds to me like we are going to be twice as vulnerable as we are in a system where we have diesel and gasoline and natural gas. So that all of a sudden, when you have a brownout or a blackout, that means you have zero energy. Whereas before, at least there was a whole—you could still have heat, you could still move your car. So again, it’s absolutely not considering reliability or energy security.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a good segue to a speech you gave in June entitled “Energy in the Age of Pragmatism,” in which you argue that there are three key goals when it comes to energy policy: reliability, affordability, and sustainability. And that these different goals function as something of a hierarchy. That is to say, sustainability is important, but it’s unlikely to sustain itself as a goal if it undermines reliability and affordability. Why don’t you elaborate a bit on these three goals, what you call the “three legs of the energy stool”, including how they interrelate and how thinking of them as a hierarchy would influence policymaking differently than it’s currently being carried out?

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: So I think affordability and reliability is the mandate of a utility company; that is their job. SAS Power, Hydro-Québec, what have you. Their mandate is to provide affordable, reliable power to you, energy to you. And why? Because in Canada, we’ll die in January without reliable energy. People do. More people died in Europe last year from the cold than from COVID.

Now we’ve added sustainability. Now the discussion the last 20 years, like I said, has evolved to say, “Wait a second, no, climate change is very bad. It’ll affect a lot of things. It’s causing extreme weather. We need to also consider sustainability.” And people are like, “Yeah, sure, of course we do.” No one’s against that. And so it’s come to be talked about as three legs of a stool. We need these three things. But what I observed and what I want to point out, and that Europe showed in the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian war, is that actually there’s still very clearly a hierarchy. That you’ll invest in sustainability only after you have the affordability and the reliability lined up.

And this is a line I heard and I use all the time. Any one of us 8 billion humans will choose dirty energy over no energy. You’ll always choose dirty energy over no energy because no energy means you’re not surviving. And so, what does that look like in practice? Germany moving back to coal; that’s what it looks like in practice. China moving into more coal. Paying any price for LNG from the United States, pricing out Pakistan, pricing out poor countries. So it’s the pragmatism that I think we’re able in our society to take energy security and the affordability and the reliability parts so for granted, which no one before 100 years ago could ever take that for granted, that we forgot that it’s not inherent to our system. That you actually have to work at those things. And in many ways, we are undermining the affordability and reliability questions. And there’s a feeling out West, and I’ll just say it: as soon as you get some brownouts in Ontario, the public narrative is going to change.

SEAN SPEER: I want to follow up on the idea that we’re living in an age of pragmatism when it comes to energy policy. Let me ask a two-part question. First, why don’t you elaborate a bit on how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected policy thinking about energy, climate change, and energy security? And second, what might be the practical effects of a more pragmatic approach? Should, for instance, energy exporting countries like Canada reduce the ambitions of their emissions targets for 2030 in order to strengthen global energy security in the short and medium term?

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: So again, we lived in, from 2014 to 2022, an era of very cheap commodities, very historically cheap commodities, very cheap energy, and low interest rates. As a result, low interest rates and low inflation. And I think we have such short memories as humans that you thought, “This is a new normal, and energy will always be cheap. We’re never going to run out of anything again.” But of course, like I say, commodities come in cycles, and now we’re starting and the Russian invasion of Ukraine started that next cycle. And we forgot that inflation was a problem. Inflation is a huge problem for human well-being, and everyone thinks we’re in a lull and it’s going to come back. It’s already still there in Europe, but it’ll come back for us too starting the winter. 

So how do we get shaken out of this? Taking energy security for granted. And people forget this: the price of natural gas and the availability of natural gas was already a problem for Europe in 2021. And that is why Putin invaded when he did. Is because he thought they were not in a position to negotiate. I have leverage now. This is a great time for me because they can’t cut off their supply. Well, it turns out they bought a tremendous amount from the United States. And turns out Germany has had to de-industrialize. But you saw how shallow—I guess imagine seeing this from the global South. Where you’ve been told at all the COT meetings that you need to change, that we all need to do better, that we need to reduce. And then the second, there’s trouble in Europe and the United States… This is a true fact, look it up. Europe subsidized energy at a cost of 800 billion euros between the fall of 2021 and a couple months ago; it’s probably updated now. 800 billion euros—that’s well over a trillion Canadian dollars.

And I mean, it’s subsidizing fossil fuels. A lot of it is fossil fuels. Because otherwise businesses will break down, you’re de-industrialized, all these things. In the United States, what did we see? Gas price started to go up after the war. Coming into driving season, where people are going on their vacation in the United States, summer 2022 heading into the midterms. What does Biden do? Gas is going to hit $5 a gallon in the U.S., which is still by any other developed country a cheap price for gas. It’s too much for the Americans politically to bear. Biden releases 180 million barrels out of the strategic petroleum reserve to keep the price of gas low enough to get to the November midterm elections. That’s what happened. So just imagine the gall you must have if you’re in the South; you’re using a 10th of the energy, you’ve been moralized and hectored. And again, like I say, the first sign of political trouble, all these other countries subsidize the hell out of their fossil fuels.

SEAN SPEER: I really liked a paper you recently co-authored on what you called “climate clubs.” Let me ask you, Heather, what are climate clubs? What might be their relevance to a country with the emissions profile and export orientation of Canada? And how might the Canadian government go about building alliances to steer global climate policy in a direction that better reflects the country’s national interests?

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: Great question. So, if your listeners were confused, I do believe climate change is a thing and a problem. We need to address it. It’s just, I think, a chaotic energy transition has worse costs than reducing emissions by 2030 or 2035 or some kind of abstract year. So, we did at MLI—and we’re a small “c” conservative think tank—so we looked at what is the efficient approach? What is the economic approach to reducing carbon emissions? And there is this idea of carbon clubs, and it has been led by Germany as part of their G7 presidency two years ago. But from a Canadian perspective, we have a carbon tax, but guess what? We are a very resource-intensive economy, export-intensive economy, and our biggest consumer and competitor is the United States next door, which doesn’t have a carbon tax. For a lot of industries, this is a huge disadvantage. And so, in theory and in principle, I don’t have an issue with the carbon tax, especially for consumption, but for our export industries, like agriculture in particular, mining and oil, that don’t have those costs of the carbon tax, it makes them less competitive on an international stage. So the practical effect, absolutely, everyone will agree, is that it reduces our competitiveness globally.

On the bright side, the EU is also putting in carbon border tariff adjustments. I forget the exact order of those. And so, that actually makes—now, we’d be more competitive. Now, we’re one of the few jurisdictions that won’t be subject to those tariffs. We’ve already invested, we’ve already felt the pain, we’ve already adjusted here in Canada, so that’s good. The United States, even though they reject the carbon tax, are also looking under the Democrats to impose some kind of equivalent tariff or somehow valuing a lower emission better than average gold standard imports for some of these things. That they’re willing to pay premium. 

In an age of scarcity, do I think everyone’s going to pay premium? I’m not sure at all, but I think at some point we will. So what does this all leave for Canada? For some sectors, the problem is the competitiveness. I don’t have a problem paying more for carbon, but if your competitors are not, that’s a real issue for you. What are the sectors that make sense? Say, steel, where there aren’t that many producers, where you could put a carbon club for everyone that produces steel and apply the same tariff on all those steel producers. So they all have an incentive to reduce their carbon emissions, but they are not at a competitive disadvantage. You could probably do it with something like shipping. Again, global sectors where people in the club represent 70–80 percent of producers, and so you have a large part of the market is covered. Shipping cement, things that are more concentrated, and that people are willing to play ball. So that is from a theoretical perspective, that makes some sense. You are not putting anyone out of business; you’re making everyone equally competitive and giving the same incentives to reduce carbon emissions. And so for Canada, that would be actually a big boon because we are already paying. We are already doing the paying. It’d be nice to have some of the advantages recognized by your customers too.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s turn the conversation to Indigenous involvement in the national resource economy. The Macdonald-Laurier Institute has long championed the notion of economic reconciliation rooted in true partnerships on natural resource projects, including pipelines, mines, and all the rest. Yet the message and story of progress at times can be overwhelmed by the inherent negativity of so much commentary and reporting on the place of Indigenous peoples in Canadian life. Let’s just start with that dichotomy. Heather, can you paint a bit of a picture of these partnerships and their sophistication and magnitude?

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: Yeah. So, as we mentioned before the show, Sean, I’m a Saskatchewan girl and started out really working on Northern and Indigenous development; that’s where my real expertise was. And during the last boom—like I said, there’s a big commodities boom in 2008 and 2009—I helped start the Saskatchewan Indigenous Economic Development Network, and I’ve been on the board ever since. At that time, it was about how do we ensure Indigenous nations get part of this resource boom? Potash was booming, uranium was booming, oil was booming. So it was all about getting businesses in the procurement supply chain to develop economic development and corporations, have good governance, all these things. I spent a lot of time doing that.

And then it was almost a shock to me. This is where I say I was radicalized with the Wet’suwet’en blockades in 2020, where I’ve spent a decade working with Indigenous nations, First Nations, that were developing economic development corporations that were trying to get contracts, negotiating IBAs. It was like, “Oh, great, there’s a mine; there’s potential for economic development.” Then the narrative from the mainstream media, I’ll say, is just “There’s protests. Indigenous people are against this. The good First Nations people are against oil and gas; they don’t want this. They need our international support; they need your donations.” The money from, like I said, the green establishment was flowing in.

They knew, though this was available information, that the 20 First Nations along Coastal Gas Link had all signed agreements and were in support. Some of them had had referendums, years had gone into getting good deals with TC Energy. The work had been done, companies had been developed, training had been done, and would you know that? And it’s just like—for me, it was the insult that that voice was just ignored. It wasn’t even criticized; it was just dismissed. That those First Nations people that supported it just didn’t even exist to journalists and politicians. Carolyn Bennett went there and met with the five hereditary chiefs, and not the 20 elected chiefs. And then people say, “Oh, those are Indian Act chiefs” and “we’ve imposed a system on them; they have democracy that is working within it. The second it’s inconvenient to your ideology, you just say, “That’s imposed, that’s Indian Act.”

You ran for election, your people reelected you, you stood up, and that’s how you’re dismissed. So, that was a turning point for me. I’ve written a lot of speeches for Indigenous leaders, op-eds, helped them with op-eds, and so on. Then I thought they’re always out in the front line of fire. They’re called greedy, they’re called corrupt. We expect them to go out there and advocate. And I thought, I better get out there and front with them because it’s not fair to put them in the position all the time. So that’s where I’ve been doing more advocacy, and also I’ll have their back.

One of the things that we did is we did a poll. Because of my experiences, I was so certain that, in fact, most Indigenous people wanted resource development; they just didn’t want the bad kind. And this is what they’ll always say: “We’re not opposed to resource development; we’re opposed to being left out.”

For 100 years, they got the raw end of the deal, for sure. And so, now it’s about, “Well, let’s find good solutions where they do have benefits, where they do get the jobs, their own source of revenues, where they do have some control, where they can move away from cultural sites, where they can protect some of the species that are important to them.” We’re finding ways to do that. And so, industry-Indigenous relations have gotten great. The poll I said, we polled national poll, very extensive poll of Indigenous people. We did it twice. So it wasn’t—because then people would say, “Oh, this wasn’t a real poll.” Okay, we did it again. Same margin of error, and 65 percent of Indigenous people support resource development. Majority support oil and gas specifically, majority support mining specifically. Across the country. The highest support for oil and gas was in BC. That was a surprise to me. And that particular number wasn’t statistically significant; there wasn’t enough of the sample in BC, but of the ones that we did poll, it was the highest in BC.

SEAN SPEER: In that vein, some, including at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, have speculated about whether anti-development policies such as stringent climate regulations might be subjected to the same duty to consult as would be the case to get a project approved. Heather, I won’t ask you to weigh into constitutional theory here, but talk a bit about the importance of bringing Indigenous voices, including partners on resource projects, into the discussion about the trade-offs between climate change, energy policy, and Indigenous economic development.

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: Yeah, and this is where, like I said, I think the lack of pragmatism stems from the fact that we have been able to take energy security and food security, especially in Canada, for granted for so long that you just think it’s a constant in your life and you don’t worry about it, but climate change is something that might give you some concern. Obviously, that’s not the case if you live on reserve or if you live in a remote community, that you don’t take food security for granted and you don’t take energy security for granted, and you don’t take having your material needs met for granted. And so, I have found personally that most Indigenous people, especially Indigenous communities on reserve and in rural areas, are very pragmatic. And I’ve learned many things from them about that, that they do see the need to balance.

They’re living with poverty, and it’s important to them to address that poverty, that is by far the most urgent threat to the majority of their members, and their neighbours, and their family. The poverty that they’re facing, the addiction set that causes, the lost hope, and just a poor lower life expectancy and lack of opportunities.

A matriarch, I’ll say in her culture, who is also an elected leader that I respect very much, has told me that, when it comes down to it—when there is a trade-off—she would always choose her people first. So would you if your family was in the same situation. And that’s the message: if you’re so lucky that you’re in the top 5 percent of the global income scale that you don’t have to worry about these things, once in a while, think about the other 95 percent. Because they’ll choose dirty energy over no energy, and all your efforts will be for naught if you don’t address the fact that they don’t have energy first off, or food, first and foremost.

SEAN SPEER: Well said. As someone who follows and studies energy a lot, what technologies or innovations are you most excited about? Where do you see the potential for squaring the circle between the environment and the economy when it comes to the energy transition?

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: So, I think we are having an energy transition. We will have an energy transition. It’s just 2030, 2035, even 2050 metrics globally are just illogical, not physically possible. There are 8 billion people; we spent a century making this energy system. You can’t change it as fast as they want, but we will change it. And if you think about energy at a physical level, and I’m a social scientist, I’ll get into some deep waters here, but obviously, fossil fuels are great because they’re very energy dense, they’re transportable, and they’re very accessible. You have them on every continent. That’s what made them such a great source of energy, and that humankind proliferated as we grew.

But there’s a better source of energy out there, and that’s nuclear. It needs even less resources—less resource-intensive, less land-intensive. On the other end of the spectrum is renewables. You need more land, you need more inputs, you need more resources to get the same amount of energy out of renewables.

And so, for me, the answer is nuclear. People will think of Chernobyl or Fukushima, and it’s kind of, nuclear is the airlines of the energy industry: the lowest deaths., absolutely the lowest deaths, but it’s the one that everyone is afraid of the most. But the people have been working on it. We have some better technology than the Soviets did in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and this will be called the fourth generation of nuclear advanced reactors. Often, they are small modular reactors, but they don’t have to be, are inherently safe, where the laws of physics prevent them from melting down. Rather than relying on, if you’ve seen the HBO show, the kind of a series of errors where things can go wrong. Maybe there are some fault lines you don’t want to put on. But also a smaller modular reactor has less of a payload than one gigawatt reactor. Some of them don’t need the same kind of water source, so they’re more flexible. So, we are applying the knowledge sector finally to the nuclear sector, and it’s wildly exciting. And in 200 years, do I think we’ll have solar panels or have an internal combustion engine? No. In 200 years, I think everything will be nuclear. We probably need some hydrogen, because sometimes it’s nice to have a fuel that’s stored somewhere.

SEAN SPEER: Final question. You co-authored a Globe and Mail op-ed earlier this year on moon mining. You wrote, “Space mining is real, and Canada has an advantage in this market.” What do you mean? What could be mined on the moon? How practical is it to set up lunar mining operations, and why do you think Canada could be well-placed to play a role in such a development?

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: And I came here with the same—if this is the first time you’re hearing it, you’re probably like, “You can’t even make money mining copper in Yukon. How are you going to make money mining it on the moon?” That was my same skepticism, but that’s not what it is.

Why do we need to mine on the moon? It’s because we are establishing lunar bases. Within eight years, it is NASA’s plan, and the Canadian Space Agency has the same plan, and China and Russia have their own plan for their own lunar bases in a decade to have permanent human presence on the moon. You need to mine the moon to support that permanent human presence. So it’s about operations to get the oxygen and probably hydrogen, because you can split water. So if you find water, you can have hydrogen and oxygen, not to mention you need the water. Those are the basis for life. So finding a place on the moon where you have that and turning it into these essential components.

Here’s the other thing: if you can get hydrogen off the moon, if you want to go to deep space, and we do, and that’s already in the plans, we want to go to Mars for sure, getting out of our atmosphere is extremely energy-intensive, and you’re going to spend a lot of your payload just getting out of our atmosphere. Well, wouldn’t it be great if you could gas up at a lunar space station, if you could get some hydrogen off of the moon, and fill up on hydrogen before you keep going? Yes, it would be great. That’s what’s going to happen. That’s the only way we’re going to get into deep space is with these lunar gas stations. And so that’s what mostly it is right now.

The third thing, though, is that there is something on the moon that may be so valuable that it’s actually worth mining it on the moon and bringing it to the earth, and that’s the isotope of helium. Because there’s helium-3 on the moon that really doesn’t exist on Earth naturally, but it’s there on the moon, and you can use it for fusion. So right now, our nuclear power is fission. And then the big breakthrough in the California lab a couple of months ago was fusion. And helium-3 is very good for fusion because it’s missing one of the—this is where I get out of my expertise. Something to do with the electrons or whatever, but it’s less radiation. And when you do fusion with it, there’s no radiation, so better with than fission because there’s no radioactive material coming out of it.

So if you could get helium-3 out of the moon and its light, so if you brought a ton of it back, you’d have a ton of helium-3. I think it’s in the op-ed, and I forget the numbers, but a ton of it could be worth billions of dollars because it would power billions of households. A couple tons of this stuff could provide a tremendous amount of energy.

So, why does it make sense for Canada? We’re already good at the space arms, the space robotics, the things that you would need to mine remotely. And we’re good at mining—really good at mining—and we’re good at mining in remote spaces. And so, if you think that these things are going to happen, if you think helium-3 might be a thing, for God’s sakes, for once in our lives, let’s get there first. We’re the best at it. Let’s not wait for someone to learn from all the things we’ve done for the last 100 years and then scoop us and make the money off moon mining.

SEAN SPEER: Hear, hear! What an insightful answer in what’s been an insightful conversation. Heather Exner-Pirot, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.


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