NYT: Will electric cars become an environmental catastrophe?

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Answer: Of course they will, with mining being among the many other issues in pushing to eliminate internal-combustion engines in favor of an all-electric fleet. No one who has studied the composition of the energy-storage systems in electric cars could possibly miss the environmental dangers of such a transformation.

The most interesting point of this brief review of one potential environmental catastrophe is the media outlet raising the issue. Even if it got buried over the weekend, the fact that the New York Times raises the mining issues is significant:

The United States needs to quickly find new supplies of lithium as automakers ramp up manufacturing of electric vehicles.

Lithium is used in electric car batteries because it is lightweight, can store lots of energy and can be repeatedly recharged. Other ingredients like cobalt are needed to keep the battery stable.

But production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people, Ivan Penn and Eric Lipton report for The New York Times. Mining is one of the dirtiest businesses out there.

The NYT did a deeper dive on the specifics one day earlier in a high-profile, front-page piece that mainly hit on Friday. “Electric cars and renewable energy may not be as green as they appear,” Penn and Lipton warned:

But the project, known as Lithium Americas, has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious ground water, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.

“Blowing up a mountain isn’t green, no matter how much marketing spin people put on it,” said Max Wilbert, who has been living in a tent on the proposed mine site while two lawsuits seeking to block the project wend their way through federal courts.

The fight over the Nevada mine is emblematic of a fundamental tension surfacing around the world: Electric cars and renewable energy may not be as green as they appear. Production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people.

That environmental toll has often been overlooked in part because there is a race underway among the United States, China, Europe and other major powers. Echoing past contests and wars over gold and oil, governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come.

If we don’t mine it here, we will have to depend on mining elsewhere. That will be just as destructive to the global environment, plus make us dependent on the regimes that will ruthlessly extract these rare minerals. That puts us in no better position than we were when we refused to extract our own oil for our own consumption.

However, the environmental issues don’t end with mining. Manufacturing batteries is a highly toxic process, for instance, but battery disposal is even more so. Each car has its own battery, which means we’re already dealing with this, but forcing vehicles to go electric means multiplying those issues exponentially. The life cycle of the batteries will likely encourage shorter life cycles for vehicles as well, as the replacement costs of batteries might make disposal a better idea than refits.

Even more problematic is the question of energy distribution. Internal combustion engines allow for efficient production of energy within each car as needed, without needing to account for peaks and valleys in usage. Our current electric grid has become less reliable of late thanks to green-energy mandates, such as in California, where rolling blackouts are a regular summer feature before everyone’s car needs a charge from the grid. Where will the necessary energy originate to charge hundreds of millions of vehicles every day? Rather than use local internal combustion engines for power on demand, we will have to burn massive amounts of fossil fuels in less-efficient ways to provide the energy — or turn America’s vehicles into stationary statues for most of their life cycle.

Conversion to hydrogen makes more sense than conversion to electric storage systems, or even to clean-burning natural gas. Hydrogen has safety issues, and natural gas requires the kind of fracking that Biden hates but which provides a plentiful domestic supply. Every other path either requires more environmental damage, more reliance on foreign supplies, less ability for mobility, or a combination of all three. When the New York Times starts front-paging this point, perhaps even the Left will figure it out.

Update: A big welcome to readers of Citizen Free Press! CFP recently reminded us that solar panels have massive environmental consequences, too.