Conservatives have long argued that the pursuit of electric vehicles through government grants and credits is a bad idea, mainly from a public-policy and economic standpoint.  But what if electric vehicles are a bad idea from an environmental standpoint, too?  An environmental activist who once pushed for EVs and now works as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley now calls electric vehicles “unclean at any speed” in a recent article for the engineering journal IEEE Spectrum (via Weasel Zippers and UPI):

The idea of electrifying automobiles to get around their environmental shortcomings isn’t new. Twenty years ago, I myself built a hybrid electric car that could be plugged in or run on natural gas. It wasn’t very fast, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t safe. But I was convinced that cars like mine would help reduce both pollution and fossil-fuel dependence.

I was wrong.

I’ve come to this conclusion after many years of studying environmental issues more deeply and taking note of some important questions we need to ask ourselves as concerned citizens. Mine is an unpopular stance, to be sure. The suggestive power of electric cars is a persuasive force—so persuasive that answering the seemingly simple question “Are electric cars indeed green?” quickly gets complicated.

Ozzie Zehner, who worked on the experimental EV-1 at GM before it got shelved, says some of the complications are due to the economics of science and scientific research.  Most of the funding comes from interested parties, which tends to produce research that supports their positions.  Zehner suggests that readers “follow the money” to “get a sense of how biases creep in.”  What ends up happening, Zehner explains, is that the research on the environmental impact of EVs begins and ends at the tailpipe of internal-combustion vehicles as the sole comparison.

On that basis, EVs look environmentally friendly.  When comparing the entire life cycle of EVs to their gasoline- or diesel-fueled counterparts, though, the picture changes dramatically, as Zehner discovered:

One study attempted to paint a complete picture. Published by the National Academies in 2010 and overseen by two dozen of the United States’ leading scientists, it is perhaps the most comprehensive account of electric-car effects to date. Its findings are sobering. …

It drew together the effects of vehicle construction, fuel extraction, refining, emissions, and other factors. In a gut punch to electric-car advocates, it concluded that the vehicles’ lifetime health and environmental damages (excluding long-term climatic effects) are actually greater than those of gasoline-powered cars. Indeed, the study found that an electric car is likely worse than a car fueled exclusively by gasoline derived from Canadian tar sands!

As for greenhouse-gas emissions and their influence on future climate, the researchers didn’t ignore those either. The investigators, like many others who have probed this issue, found that electric vehicles generally produce fewer of these emissions than their gasoline- or diesel-fueled counterparts—but only marginally so when full life-cycle effects are accounted for. The lifetime difference in greenhouse-gas emissions between vehicles powered by batteries and those powered by low-sulfur diesel, for example, was hardly discernible.

The National Academies’ study stood out for its comprehensiveness, but it’s not the only one to make such grim assessments. A Norwegian study published last October in the Journal of Industrial Ecology compared life-cycle impacts of electric vehicles. The researchers considered acid rain, airborne particulates, water pollution, smog, and toxicity to humans, as well as depletion of fossil fuel and mineral resources. According to coauthor Anders Stromman, “electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on par with modern internal combustion engine vehicles, despite virtually zero direct emissions during operation.”

I’ve made these points a number of times.  The green argument for EVs ignores everything outside of the tailpipe, including the source of power generation, and the manufacturing and disposal of the storage elements.  Zehner wonders whether the effort to shift power generation out of the vehicle itself is a sneaky way of dumping the pollution problem outside of the urban areas where cars get the most use, and where residents are typically poorer and less politically powerful:

North American power station emissions also largely occur outside of urban areas, as do the damaging consequences of nuclear- and fossil-fuel extraction. And that leads to some critical questions. Do electric cars simply move pollution from upper-middle-class communities in Beverly Hills and Virginia Beach to poor communities in the backwaters of West Virginia and the nation’s industrial exurbs? Are electric cars a sleight of hand that allows peace of mind for those who are already comfortable at the expense of intensifying asthma, heart problems, and radiation risks among the poor and politically disconnected?

Ouch.  Zehner wants public policy to focus more on alternatives to personal vehicles altogether, including limitations on urban sprawl, mass transit, and non-motorized transportation (bicycles and walking). Conservatives probably won’t like those options much more than government-subsidized and government-imposed EVs, but at least they have the virtue of not paying billions of dollars to make environmental damage worse.