Big Oil Fictions

Facts and studies in defense of the electric car

Barry Saxifrage

Charging stations in SF City Hall: photo: Felix Kramer via wikimedia commons

I applaud the call in “Investment Puzzle” (Watershed Sentinel January/February 2017) to hold all companies, including electric vehicle (EV) makers, to the same high standards. The examples of “significant environmental risks” given, however, are bogus. They match the oil industry’s relentless dis-information attack on EVs. The merchants of carbon are working to protect their climate-destabilizing profits at the expense of humanity transitioning to a climate-sane energy system in time. To illustrate, let’s look at the article’s four supposedly major EV problems:

Claim: “Most batteries end up in landfills … heavy metals being released.”

Response: Rubbish. Few if any EV batteries end up in landfills. They are too valuable. They are re-used for energy storage, or recycled for their valuable metals. As Green Car Reports says: “Every maker of plug-in electric cars will have a program to take back used or damaged battery packs.” Nissan calls their used Leaf batteries “an asset to be leveraged.” Toyota calls its batteries “zero-landfill” products. They collect and recycle over 90% of them. Others get used for energy storage. Tesla already recycles every battery they can get back. And they are working to “close the loop” by building a battery-recycling line directly into their new battery-producing Gigafactory.

Further Reading:

Claim: “Using coal-fired electricity to recharge the batteries, as happens in much of the US and in parts of Canada, may result in worse greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental consequences than does driving a gasoline powered car.”

Response: Shockingly wrong. Another of Big Oil’s false memes is that EVs are somehow just as climate polluting as gas burners. Multiple studies have thoroughly debunked this. For example, a 2015 study by Union of Concerned Scientists, Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave, found that “over their lifetime, battery electric vehicles produce far less global warming pollution than their gasoline counterparts – and they’re getting cleaner.” This was true for “all Americans” in all regions. And an in-depth 2016 study by the US Energy Department, Emissions Associated with Electric Vehicle Charging, found that plug-in cars produce less climate pollution in all scenarios. It included a theoretical 93% coal-fired grid. Our dirtiest grids (US Rockies WECC and Alberta) are down to 70% coal. And grids keep getting cleaner at a startling rate. Canada’s electricity is 33% cleaner since 2005, with all coal burning being shut down by 2030. And the US has reduced coal burn by a third since 2005.

Further Reading:

Claim: “Pounds of toxic cobalt and unstable lithium … presenting a safety hazard.”

Response: Scare tactic. Another Big Oil myth is that EVs are somehow less safe. When it comes to safety, EVs undergo the same publicly reported safety tests as other cars. For example, the US National Highway Safety Administration gave Tesla’s Model S the highest possible safety rating – five stars in every category. Less than 1% of gasoline cars can match this safety standard.

As far as the batteries themselves, Tesla states: “our lithium ion cells contain no heavy metals, nor any toxic materials.” It is true that some EV batteries can contain up to 10kg of lithium, which can ignite during vehicle accidents, in rare cases. Internal combustion engine (ICE) cars contain their own unstable (and toxic) chemical that also ignites in some accidents. It’s called gasoline. In fact, every three minutes an ICE car catches on fire on US highways, without being in any accident. The average ICE car must burn 25 tonnes of gasoline during its lifespan – releasing 100 tonnes (wells to wheels) of unsafe global warming and ocean acidification pollution. And gasoline exhaust makes our air hazardous in other ways. One example: 53,000 early deaths each year in the USA from it (MIT study).

Internal combustion engine (ICE) cars contain their own unstable (and toxic) chemical that also ignites in some accidents. It’s called gasoline.

Further Reading:

Claim: “Mining of graphite and lithium, required for the batteries, results in significant environmental impacts and social dislocation.”

Response: Time to dig a little deeper. Graphite mining in China has apparently caused problems. Which EV makers use it? Who knows, because not one example is provided. Vague statements lacking specific examples are a hallmark of Big Carbon’s “alternative facts” campaigns. My own Google search revealed that EV leader Tesla uses a synthetic graphite from Japan and Europe. It costs twice as much. Tesla also says its under-construction Gigafactory will source all battery materials from North America. The reason: “to establish a supply chain that is local and focused on minimizing environmental impact while significantly reducing battery cost.”

Lithium is primarily produced by pumping underground brine into evaporation ponds. Chile, Argentina and Nevada are major producers. I could find no specific examples of significant environmental impacts or social dislocation from it. Can you?

What I could easily find is lots of specific examples of environmental and social destruction caused by oil extraction. From the tar sands, to Gulf of Mexico spills, to Ecuadorean Amazon dislocations, to Middle East wars, dirty oil is tearing apart ecosystems and communities. Each EV needs a few kg of lithium, which can be recycled and reused. Each ICE car needs 25 tonnes of new oil extracted, which all turns to pollution.

Further Reading:

Bottom line: If we want to hold EV makers accountable we first need to separate EV facts from Big Oil fictions. That requires specific examples (which company, what actions) backed by trusted sources that show us the details.

Barry Saxifrage researches, charts and writes about our intensifying climate crisis.

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