PART ONE: TECHNOLOGY CRITICAL ELEMENTS AND THE HIDDEN ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS OF LITHIUM MINING
When I first heard about electric vehicles and their potential to put a major dent in global warming, I was skeptical. Granted, they don’t emit greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels, but they run on electricity produced in coal-fired power plants. Don’t environmentalists decry the burning of coal for power production as “dirty energy”? How could this be any better than a gas powered car? I just didn’t buy into what the EV industry was selling, but I didn’t give it much thought beyond that until September 27, 2020. I took part in a zoom call with Stefanie Powers and when she mentioned her dislike of EV’s it gave me a moment of pause. If someone as dedicated to the environment as she is criticizes the technology, there’s got to be a damned good reason why. I decided to do a little research of my own and what you’re about to read is the first of my deep dives into environmental research. I’m certain most people don’t realize the toll the creation of the vehicles takes on both the environment and the people who mine the lithium and cobalt that is crucial to their batteries. Hopefully my efforts will open your eyes the way they opened mine.
To understand why electric vehicles are dangerous to the environment, we must first understand the source of their power, the lithium-ion battery. Like all batteries, Li-Ion batteries consist of a positive and negative electrode with an electrolyte chemical between them. What makes a Li-Ion battery rechargeable is that the flow of ions is reversible – when charging they flow from the positive to the negative electrode, and when in use, the lithium ions flow from the negative to the positive electrode. They generally have a longer battery life than a traditional battery and with zero exhaust emissions, what is there not to love?
Plenty, if you consider how the technology-critical elements required for EV batteries are mined. More than half of all the lithium on earth exists beneath the salt flats of parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, a region called the Lithium Triangle. The area is extremely dry and the process by which lithium is extracted is dependent on water. Water is pumped underground and the slurry of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium that is brought to the surface is left to dry out for 12 to 18 months before the lithium can be separated and processed. It’s a cheap, if not time intensive, way to mine lithium, but it uses about 500,000 gallons of water per ton of lithium extracted. This disenfranchises many indigenous peoples and drives them from their ancestral homes; in Chile’s Salar de Atacama region, 65% of all the water is used for lithium mining, and farmers have to fight losing battles with large corporations in order to irrigate their crops. A single Tesla Model S batter requires 12 kilograms of lithium to power the car. Think of how many millions of kilograms of lithium are needed if the West is to replace all gas powered vehicles with EVs by 2030. Recent discoveries of lithium deposits in the Himalayas have stirred controversy over how best to mine the estimated $60 billion in precious metals that lie in the shadow of Everest. Billions of people live downstream from the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and even the slightest contamination of either water source could be catastrophic. Factor in the added challenges of mining at high altitude and building processing facilities miles away from the mines and it doesn’t seem like a responsible use of resources. Suddenly, electric vehicles don’t seem to be the savior all those Super Bowl ads claim they are.