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Refusing to extract lithium is not a refusal to extract

David Colborne
David Colborne
Opinion
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I strongly suspect my next car will be a battery electric vehicle.

I tend to drive my cars until the wheels (sometimes quite literally) come off. My last car lasted nearly a decade and had more than 200,000 miles on the odometer — if it hadn’t been rear-ended one fateful Thanksgiving weekend, it might have been drivable for another couple of years. My current car, meanwhile, is five years old and has a little more than 115,000 miles on it. Assuming it holds up as well as my last car, I don’t end up in a catastrophic accident in it, and my commute remains consistent, I expect to be driving it until roughly 2030.

By the time I’m ready to buy a new car, there may not be many gasoline-powered cars for sale in Nevada.

California recently announced it plans to require 100 percent of new car sales in the state to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035 — in California-speak, a “zero-emission vehicle” is, for all intents and purposes, an electric vehicle, though hydrogen-fueled vehicles also technically qualify. Seventeen other states, including Nevada starting in 2025, also either already follow or plan on adopting California’s zero-emission vehicle regulations in the near future. 

Assuming I do wait until 2030 to buy a new car, nearly 70 percent of all new cars sold in California, Nevada, and other participating states will be required to be zero-emission vehicles — which, barring a sudden and unexpected breakthrough in hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology, will mean the supermajority of new cars sold here and in California will be battery electric vehicles.

Additionally, the United Kingdom and European Union also both plan on ending the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles in 2030 and 2035, respectively. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of all new cars sold last year in the United States were sold in jurisdictions adopting California’s zero-emission vehicle regulations according to the latest annual report released by the National Automobile Dealers Association. Additionally, more than six million battery electric vehicles will be sold in China this year — that’s roughly a quarter of all vehicles sold there.

Put it all together and the world’s three largest car markets are either electrifying or plan on electrifying within the next decade. That doesn’t leave a large market for internal combustion engine-powered vehicles — and what market remains for the technology currently powering my car (and probably yours as well) won’t be as prosperous as the United States or the European Union. Consequently, a lot of capital is shifting towards building and improving electric cars while internal combustion engine technology begins to go the way of VCRs and floppy disks.

Seriously, even Dodge is giving up and giving in.

This transition, however, creates some logistical challenges — chief among which is that human beings don’t mine anywhere near enough lithium (much less the rest of the components involved in creating electric car batteries) to produce enough new battery electric cars for everyone buying new cars now.

***

In 2019, according to the International Energy Agency, roughly 92 million cars were sold. To install a 100 kilowatt-hour battery in each car — the same battery used in a Tesla Model X — requires at least 7-8 kilograms of lithium at a theoretical minimum; as no battery is perfectly efficient, let’s go ahead and round that up to 10 kilograms of lithium each. That means we need to mine approximately 920 million kilograms of lithium each year to fully electrify every new car on the planet. However, according to the latest Mineral Commodity Summary published by the U.S. Geological Survey, only 100,000 tons of lithium (excluding domestic production for reasons we’ll get into in a bit) were mined in 2021 — that’s just over 90 million kilograms

Fully electrifying all new cars, then, will require a ten-fold increase in the amount of lithium mined each year.

That, both understandably and unsurprisingly, does not make environmentalists particularly happy. Mines are large, destructive operations that invariably disturb sensitive species and produce every conceivable form of pollution imaginable (ground, water, air, light, and probably a few others I’m forgetting about). It is therefore both understandable and unsurprising that activists have been publishing opinion columns in various publications where they claim electric cars, filled with freshly mined lithium, will be worse for the environment — or, at least, not anywhere near better enough for the environment than the current status quo.

I agree with the environmentalists, albeit somewhat conditionally, that a world without cars would probably be more environmentally friendly than a world with them — conditionally, that is, because much of the world has spent the past century building car-dependent infrastructure which would either need to be replaced or gracefully retired before such a world could be reached. Transitioning to that world, however, would require us to live in a society which allows bike lanes to be built without 1,353-page Draft Environmental Impact Reports or allows Bus Rapid Transit lanes to be painted in less than five years.

We don’t live in that society, however. Instead, we live in a vetocracy that privileges neverending public input over policy and process outcomes, one which treats bike and bus lane expansions as procedurally and legally equivalent to freeway and mine expansions. 

In the society we actually live in, environmentalists and off-highway vehicle enthusiasts can use the courts to team up to kill solar power projects — as, in fact, they did when they killed the Battle Born Solar Project. Consequently, Nevadans don’t have several thousand additional megawatts of comparatively clean energy — comparatively, that is, against the coal or natural gas which produce much of the power we currently rely upon — at the cost of some admittedly limited desert tortoise habitat. Instead, we have an otherwise empty patch of desert where off-highway vehicle enthusiasts may continue to frolic with desert tortoises in their native habitat atop two-stroke engine-powered dirt bikes, each one producing more noise than any solar panel ever made and more pollution than forty cars. 

Oh, and most of the energy produced in Nevada is still produced by non-renewable fossil fuels — though we at least passed a constitutional amendment during the last election to buy steadily increasing amounts of renewable energy from someone, which will presumably be produced somewhere. Luckily, Nevada is the only state in the union with endangered species, delicate desert habitat, and off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, so we can just buy most of our renewable energy from Utah or California or something.

Less cynically and facetiously, Nevadans, like most people, want the world to be a better place. We’re just also, like most people, more afraid of any potential new harms which might arise from making the world a better place than we are the existing harms we currently face. That’s why any environmental solution which requires Nevadans or Americans more generally to vote, 50 percent plus 1, in favor of significant systemic change before implementation — the kind needed to abandon multijurisdictional subsidies of car-dependent infrastructure, for example — is not a solution.

Solutions that allow us to individually make slightly better decisions, however, have a fighting chance.

***

What existing harms do we face?

I currently commute to work in a 2017 Mazda 3 Sport hatchback. It’s reasonably fuel efficient, as far as cars go (I usually average roughly 35 miles per gallon) and is considerably smaller than many of the vehicles I share the road with. As I pointed out earlier, it also has roughly 115,000 miles on it.

One of the major complaints about electric cars is weight — a Rivian R1S, one of the largest electric sport utility vehicles on the road, has an estimated curb weight of 7,000 pounds. By comparison, my Mazda weighs just under 3,000 pounds. The difference in weight between my Mazda and the Rivian is, in part, explained by the fact that the Rivian is a full-sized sport utility vehicle while my car is a compact hatchback, but it’s also in part explained by the Rivian needing a large, heavy battery full of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other metals, while my car was instead built with a hollow 13 gallon container that I happen to fill with gasoline every week.

That hollow 13 gallon container — my fuel tank — however, is regularly hollowed out over time. Over the 115,000-mile lifetime of my car, I consumed roughly 3300 gallons of gasoline. Assuming each gallon of gasoline weighs a bit over six pounds, I have personally burned roughly 23,000 pounds of gasoline.

That 7,000 pound Rivian R1S, by comparison, requires zero pounds of gasoline or anything else to move 115,000 miles.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — as I myself pointed out a few paragraphs ago, electricity frequently comes from fossil fuels and electricity is what electric cars consume instead of gasoline. Consequently, if I’m being honest with you and myself, I should calculate the weight of the fuels consumed to produce the electricity consumed by electric cars and add that to the Rivian’s total.

That, however, ignores the fact that gasoline doesn’t just manifest itself into fuel tanks. Just as electricity is generated and transmitted, gasoline is produced from oil, which is, in turn, distilled, refined, and shipped. The difference is you don’t need a gas station with leaking tanks to deliver electricity to cars. You also don’t need fuel tankers, which refill themselves from leaking petroleum pipelines, to deliver electricity to charging stations — instead, you just need considerably less leaky power lines. The petroleum filling those pipelines, meanwhile, is produced in oil refineries, and those — as I learned as a child when my Southern California neighborhood refinery exploded — are routinely unsafe and unclean.

That explosion, by the way, was not the first disaster to befall my childhood neighborhood’s oil refinery, nor was it the last. At least when wind turbines catch fire, they don’t rain hydrofluoric acid on the neighbors. When was the last time your neighborhood power plant exploded?

Even if we put aside the safety and environmental record of oil refineries for a moment, there’s a raw material cost in all of the gasoline we consume. In 2019, the world consumed roughly 10 million barrels of gasoline each day. Given that a standard barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, that means the world consumed 420 million gallons — that’s over 2.5 billion pounds, or nearly 116 million kilograms — of gasoline (not including diesel) each and every day before the pandemic.

Remember again that gasoline doesn’t come directly from the ground. It’s produced from oil, which, like lithium, is also extracted from the ground at considerable environmental expense.

Given a choice between burning nearly 116 million kilograms of gasoline and turning 2.5 million kilograms (the 920 million kilograms needed for every new car produced each year divided by 365) of lithium into electric car batteries each day, it’s not a hard choice. Not only is the raw physical quantity of material forcibly removed from the Earth substantially less, but lithium batteries are also recyclable — which is more than can be said for my Mazda’s tailpipe emissions.

Should we turn millions of kilograms of lithium into car batteries? Perhaps not, but we’re already turning hundreds of millions of kilograms of gasoline into tailpipe emissions. Reducing our extractive footprint by a factor of 50 would be a major win.

Doing so, however, would require us to actually extract that lithium so we can stop extracting fifty times its weight in oil.

***

There is exactly one lithium mine in the United States. If you’ve ever driven from Reno to Las Vegas, or vice-versa, you probably drove past it. It’s in Clayton Valley, which is on the other side of Lone Mountain just outside of Tonopah.

Consequently, most of the lithium we consume in our smartphones, laptops, and electric cars is extracted in Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina. Like the United States, these countries are not greenfields devoid of endangered life and historical weight. We are, in other words, threatening endangered species and digging through sensitive historical landmarks each and every time we charge our cell phones.

That, however, is just as true of oil extraction — and always was. We’ve just been extracting oil for so long that we’re more comfortable with creating an open pit mine that can be seen from space to harvest tar sands in Canada than we are with threatening a small snail or digging through a massacre site to build a second lithium mine in the United States.

That’s fine. I understand. I live here, too, and I don’t like seeing our deserts getting torn to shreds, either.

As we make these value judgments, however, it’s important to do some double-entry bookkeeping. If we’re not going to dig in Thacker Pass or expand the nation’s only lithium mine in Clayton Valley, how much more oil will be extracted from the ground? What historical and environmental sites in other, more permissive countries will be destroyed to make way for lithium mines? How much oil are we going to burn moving lithium, and the products manufactured from that lithium, from their countries of origin to the United States?

I ask because we are every bit as likely as a nation to abandon cars as carbohydrates. Pretending otherwise isn’t environmentalism — it’s delusion.

David Colborne ran for office twice and served on the executive committees for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered nonpartisan voter, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected]

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