Sunday, November 13, 2022

Lithium mining - environmental disaster, or just a bit iffy?

I have already had to tackle the rumour that electric vehicles (EVs) are not actually environmentally superior to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. What is now doing the rounds of Facebook (or so an earnest, but slightly gullible, neighbour tells me) is the rumour that rare earth metal mining, especially lithium for EV batteries, is totally unsustainable and more environmentally destructive than oil drilling.

Snopes (among others) has thoroughly debunked one particular misleading image that has been doing the rounds of Facebook: 

Supposed to show that maybe oil sands developing is not as environmentally destructive as lithium mining, the images unfortunaty are not quite what they purport to be, actually not even close. Oops.

Most developed countries, and some less developed ones, have latched onto the idea that EVs are the way to go as regards transportation in a warming climate crisis world. Many countries have pledged to go 100% electric by 2035, or 50% by 2030, or whatever. EV take-up in North America has already reached the 5% threshold that many experts say is the point after which mass adoption will automatically take over, a point that many European countries and China reached some time ago, and EV demand is expected to at least triple in the next few years. So, demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and some other more obscure elements is also expected to spike. How can we fulfill this demand responsibly and sustainably?

This detailed account on GRID News gives a good objective primer on the lithium and other EV mineral situation. 98% of the lithium mined in the world today comes from Australia, Chile and China (the Big Three), as well as Argentina and a few other smaller Latin American nations (Chile and Australia have by far the largest known reserves). Lithium, however, is not actually particularly rare; it is a matter of finding sources that are practical and economical to extract. As I have outlined in a previous post, new more environmentally-resposible extraction techniques are being developed all the time, and many new mines are trying to build in environmental safeguards, renewable power sources, etc. But it can take 7-10 years to develop a new lithium extraction facility and we really need it now, which creates a lot of pressure to take short-cuts.

Most of the world's cobalt comes from sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Chinese developments are being bravely resisted as unfair (althouh DRC itself has a bad problem with child labour). Many other minerals used in EV batteries are located in countries like Brazil, Cuba, Philippines, Indonesia, etc, all of which have their human rights challenges. Developments in these countries will be under the microscope as they are announced. Mining the seabed of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico has huge potential for the production of nickel, copper, manganese, cobalt, etc, but it too will need to be handled in a sensitive and suatainable way, if indeed it proves to be possible.

And then there is China. China only produces about 10% of the world's lithium locally, but it has a disproportionate hand in lithium mining elsewhere, including huge concerns in Australia and Chile, as it does with nickel production in Indonesia, and cobalt in Democratic Republic of the Congo. And concern is definitely the right word, given that much of the west is looking to distance itself from totalitarian regimes like China and Russia, and "friend-shoring" becomes the watchword. 

Perhaps even more worrying is the refining of these essential minerals: more than 60% of lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite refining takes place in China, giving the Chinese an effective stranglehold over strategic EV minerals and EV battery production. In an era where China is establishing itself as a maverick state, global EV battery manufacture is looking very precarious, and the US and other counties are deperately playing catch-up (the US's recent Inflation Reduction Act took some concrete steps in that direction, and Europe has been pursuing battery independence policies for some time).

None of this, however, addresses the issue of whether lithium mining is environmentally disastrous or just a bit iffy. Web pages like this one from the Institute of Energy Research have documented the environmental challenges of the iniquitous lithium industry. No-one is denying that, but it is still hard to put it into some perspective.

For example, to look at just one aspect, part of the problem of such a Chinese dominance in the EV battery industry is that about 60% of China's electricity still comes from dirty coal, so the CO2 profile of EV batteries produced in China is higher than it should be, another good reason to develop home-grown industries. Some European countries with cleaner electricity production are starting to try and develop their own processing industries, but it is a long, slow process.

This web page from ChangeIt concludes that, despite all of the foregoing, there is no reason to suspect that expanded intensive lithium mining will have a worse environmental impact than the drilling, refining and transporting (and, potentially, spilling!) of petroleum products. Plus, novel mining techniques and increased recycling and re-use of lithium and other rare earth minerals will tip the balance even further in the direction of battery-powered EVs. 

Even academic studies like this one from NHSJS conclude that it is very difficult to compare the environmental impact of mineral extraction and battery manufacture with oil drilling and fracking operations, partly because it is almost impossible to compare like with like. Any comparisons it tries to make are inconclusive, although it does note once again that improving the recycling of battery components and ingredients would significantly change the analysis.

A Green Matters analysis concludes that fracking is a much more destructive and dangerous process than lithium mining, although obviously not all petroleum is produced by fracking. There are also a whole host of entries on StackExchange looking at the problem, but few of them are conclusive or comprehensive. Ditto the many opinions voiced on Quora.

Clearly, EVs and batteries have some significant environmental costs and some high hurdles still to overcome. But it is nevertheless hard to see the solution as worse than the problem they are designed to solve. There will always be naysayers to any new technology, and the reach and influence of the fossil fuel industry is long and strong after its decades of ascendancy. But let's try amd maintain some sense of perspective and not dismiss potentially ground-breaking and life-saving ideas out of hand.

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