The creators of the endless flood of anti-EV misinformation often claim to be great environmentalists—“Don’t get me wrong…” is a common beginning to their disingenuous articles and posts. In an ironic sense, there may be some truth to this, because they’re certainly believers in recycling. These anti-EV and anti-renewable energy rants rely on a standard repertoire of myths, most of which have been recirculated since modern EVs began to appear a decade ago—and most have been thoroughly debunked and/or made irrelevant by technological and business developments.
In a previous article, we provided links to scientific studies that have invalidated some of the most common anti-EV myths, including the idea that EVs pollute more than gas cars if their electricity comes from non-renewable sources (The Long Tailpipe), the dismissal of battery recycling, the fantasy that EV tires and brakes cause more particulate pollution, and the hoax about diesel-powered charging stations.
However, there are plenty more anti-EV bugaboos out there, and they are continually recycled and reframed—we could probably write ten more articles like this one. We’ll spare you that excruciating experience, dear readers, but this week we’re going to cover one more common canard—the environmental and social problems associated with sourcing raw materials for batteries.
Anti-EV diatribes (and diatribes in general) often rely on logical fallacies that are familiar to any student of journalism—strawman arguments, cherry-picking of facts, etc. One go-to fallacy for skeptics of any new technology is static thinking—the assumption that the drawbacks of a new technology are permanent. This is about as logical as arguing that you shouldn’t save money to send your toddler to college because toddlers can’t read.
We saw a lot of this in the early days of the internet. For example, naysayers claimed that things like online audio and video would never work because download speeds were too slow—ignoring the fact that telecom providers were building out new bandwidth as fast as they could. Likewise, EV-haters harped on the limited range and long recharging times of early EVs (sometimes invoking these temporary limitations to hype hydrogen fuel cells). Now that 250-mile ranges and 30-minute highway charging are the norm, these arguments have become moot (but that doesn’t stop the boo-birds from posting them on a daily basis). Other objections such as insufficient public charging, higher costs, etc, will similarly be dealt with as the technology and markets mature.
When it comes to battery raw materials, some of the claims of the anti-EV brigade are nonsense (lithium isn’t a fuel, and it isn’t going to become “the new oil”), but some are built around grains of truth. Extracting minerals from the earth always has impacts on local environments and communities. The big bête noire of batteries is cobalt, much of which comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a war-torn land in which child labor is common.
The problems with cobalt are real, but the idea that automakers are oblivious to it is not. Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis), BMW, Tesla and other automakers have taken steps to make sure their cobalt and other minerals come from ethical, sustainable sources. Battery suppliers are developing new sources of cobalt in Canada and Australia. Industry-wide initiatives to enforce ethical sourcing of minerals are in development, including a blockchain-based tracing system and in Europe, a “battery passport” that traces the content and carbon footprint of every battery. A European Commission proposal would require all companies to disclose the sources of their raw materials, and to use minimum shares of recycled cobalt, lithium, nickel and lead.
As for the idea that the media is ignoring problems with battery supply chains (a common thread in “now it can be told” anti-EV stories), a search for “cobalt” in Charged turns up almost 200 articles dating as far back as 2012, many of them dealing with efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle Co and other problematic minerals.
Also worth mentioning: cobalt is by no means a necessary component of EV batteries. On the contrary, global automakers are increasingly turning to batteries based on a lithium iron phosphate (LFP) chemistry, which uses no nickel or cobalt. There are several reasons for the shift, but the problematic provenance of these elements (China and Russia supply significant amounts of the world’s nickel) is a factor.
Also worth mentioning, though the “EVs bad” crowd never does: the environmental and human damages from extracting fossil fuels are orders of magnitude greater than anything caused by the extraction of battery materials to date. The oil companies’ depredations in Nigeria, Venezuela, and many other countries are well-documented, long-standing and ongoing. It’s true that the ethical challenges of securing battery materials will grow as the EV market expands, but there’s one little difference between batteries and petroleum: sustainability is EVs’ raison d’etre, and those who design EVs and their batteries tend to be concerned about it. Many of those who profit from petroleum have amply demonstrated that they are not.
Written by: Charles Morris