How EVs are pitting environmentalists against themselves

And why the solution to high battery costs and “green” minerals may lie 13,000 feet below the ocean

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The war is over, the vanquished have surrendered, and the treaties have all been signed. Internal-combustion cars, as the victors had hoped, will be forever banished, some form of electrification taking its place.

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Indeed, some of the parties to the armistice are speeding up the takeover. Buoyed by the fact that the last few months of 2021 saw EVs capture more than 20 per cent of the E.U.’s new-car market share — and, in France, actually outsell gas-powered vehicles — European automakers are advancing their scheduled banning of internal-combustion engines (ICEs). No longer content to wait until 2035 to phase out fossil fuels, everyone from Jaguar to Volvo and Mercedes-Benz to Audi is promising zero emissions within just eight years. Even Ford of Europe has jumped on the bandwagon.

Here in EV-reluctant North America — BEVs ended up with only 3.7 per cent of the new-car marketplace in 2021 — Ford and Stellantis are nonetheless aiming to have 50 per cent of their sales be electric by 2030, and hardly a day goes by without another commitment from General Motors to some form of electrification or other. Like I said, the war has been lost. Internal combustion may survive in the form of PHEVs and, possibly, niche sports cars powered by net-zero synthetic fuel, but the preponderance of future light-duty vehicles will depend on electrons for their propulsion.

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That’s not to say there are no more battles to be fought. Of course, we all know that current recharging infrastructure, even in the most advanced of jurisdictions, is woefully inadequate. The proposed solutions — the U.S. government, reports TechCrunch, has just one per cent of the 100,000 chargers it will need for its vehicles — can’t come fast enough. And even those in favour of subsidizing private EV ownership will tire of showering the rich with taxpayer money just so they can buy $130,000-plus Hummer ego-boosters. Especially when there are essentially zero low-cost electrics being offered to the most impoverished.

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But these are minor skirmishes compared with what is beginning to look like the next existential conflict threatening the EV takeover — environmentalist-versus-environmentalist internecine warfare. The climate-activist-versus-denier tussle may be over, but it’s being replaced — with increasing intensity — by conservationists battling climate guardians, each fighting for supremacy of their preferred part of the biosphere.

People gather to block the highway, in Belgrade, on December 11, 2021 to protest against the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto’s plan to open a lithium mine in the country.
People gather to block the highway, in Belgrade, on December 11, 2021 to protest against the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto’s plan to open a lithium mine in the country. Photo by Oliver Bunic /Getty

In Serbia’s Jadar Valley — the site of the first victory by the Allies in the First World War, by the way — it was locals worried about a lithium mine causing what Wired projected might be “irreversible changes to ecosystems and local rivers”; versus the “energy security” and one million EV batteries that would be its work product. That Rio Tinto, Australia’s mining giant, seems to have misled pretty much everyone, including the government, as to the scope of the operations was the death knell of the project. Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabić, facing re-election, killed the deal.

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In Portugal, protests are mounting against another lithium mine in the Serra d’Arga region, locals — including all the mayors of the cities affected — up in arms over the fact 25,000 hectares of their pristine mountains, currently classified as “protected,” are being opened for exploration.

In Germany, its Vulcan Energy’s proposed lithium and geothermal energy facility in the Upper Rhine Valley that proposes to liberate 14 million tonnes of lithium — one-third of global reserves, Vulcan claims — that the company says can be produced without CO2 emissions. But — and I think we will soon be getting used to such “buts” — local administrators worry that the mining technique will result in earthquakes, one official telling the Clean Energy Wire that “he would do ‘anything’ to prevent geothermal lithium mining in the area.”

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Even seemingly minor environmental impediments are resulting in outsized obstructions. In Nevada, Ioneer, another Australian miner, is facing protests against its proposed Rhyolite Ridge lithium mine because of a flower — Tiehm’s buckwheat — so rare that even most biologists are unaware of its existence. Nonetheless, the Ioneer project is facing increasingly strong headwinds, not the least because, according to E&E News, it seems the company’s own research, “could give the federal government the science it needs to protect the flower.

A charging port on a Mercedes Benz EQC 400 4Matic electric vehicle at the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto.
A charging port on a Mercedes Benz EQC 400 4Matic electric vehicle at the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto. Photo by Mark Blinch /Reuters

Whatever the specific reason for rejection, though, the battlefield positions are universal. All the parties involved agree that lithium is absolutely essential for the production of EVs — and therefore the greening of our planet — but local residents simply don’t want the mines in their back-yard. NIMBYism (it stands for “Not In My Back Yard”), it would seem, is not just a disease of the proselytizing liberal looking to keep out of their neighbourhood the low-cost housing they claim to support.

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Even those mining operations far from the public eye are starting to get attention. While lithium would seem to be fairly plentiful — most experts agree that currently-discovered reserves should be able to supply automakers until 2050, pending mining approval of course — nickel looks to be a much bigger problem in the near term. Russia is among the world’s largest producers of the mineral, so it should be no surprise prices for it have almost doubled in the last year.

The bigger problem, however, is that all the easily — and ethically — exploited nickel reserves are almost maxxed out. That’s why President Biden recently added nickel (and lithium) to the 1950 Defense Production Act (the one Harry Truman originally enacted to make steel for the Korean conflict) and Elon Musk signed that supposedly “secret” deal with Vale S.A. for its own stores of the stuff (some of which will be sourced from Canada’s locally renowned Sudbury nickel mines). It’s also why Indonesia and the Philippines, by far the two largest producers of nickel, have become such hot-beds of development, too.

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The problem, unfortunately, is that much of that nickel is “dirty.” Very, very dirty, in fact.

A dump truck in a nickel mine in Australia
A dump truck in a nickel mine in Australia Photo by Ron D’Raine /Bloomberg

According to CleanTechnica — and apologies for this descent into commodities trading — there are two types of nickel deposits: sulfides and laterites. The former occurs in hard rock that has formed from crystallization of magma and can be mined, processed, and smelted fairly cleanly. The deposits are quite concentrated so there’s relatively little wastage. The issue is that, according to the U.S. Geology Service, sulfide deposits make up less than a third of known reserves, and ready, easy access to this clean nickel is, according to most reports, pretty much tapped out.

The more plentiful laterite deposits, by comparison, are terrible things. Not only are they relatively impure — holding between just three and 15 per cent nickel by weight — but they are often found in shallow deposits under rainforests. And the easy way to get those laterites out of the ground is — you guessed it — stripping the countryside bare of everything from coverage foliage to the indigenous trees. According to Wired author Cliff Rice, an affiliate assistant professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington, “over 40 per cent of the nickel mines on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia stripped intact rain-forest to get to the ore.” One hesitates to point out the overly obvious, but I really do hope the irony of denuding rain-forests — nature’s own carbon-capture system — so that we can build cars that don’t produce carbon emissions isn’t lost on anyone.

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Making matters worse is that processing of this laterite nickel is hugely energy-intensive, the smelting and refining process releasing 90 tons of CO2 for every ton of nickel produced. Rice calculates that the 50 kilograms of nickel in a typical car battery therefore results in four-and-a-half tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. According to the EPA, that’s roughly the equivalent of driving a twin-turbo 400-horsepower Lincoln Aviator luxury SUV about 18,000 kilometres.

All parties involved agree lithium is absolutely essential for EV production — and therefore the greening of our planet — but local residents simply don’t want the mines in their back-yard

Even more troubling is that this strip mining can leach a dangerous chemical, hexavalent chromium, into the drinking water. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, you’ve heard that name before, but you can’t remember where. Hexavalent chromium is the carcinogen that got Pacific Gas & Electric Company into so much trouble with Erin Brockovich and laid waste to Hinckley, California’s groundwater to the tune of a US$333-million settlement, at the time the single largest such sum in American history. On the Indonesian island of Obi, concentrations of this cancer-causing chemical — 60 parts per billion — in local waterways are already above government standards, says The Guardian, and that’s before any of the rapid expansion that’s projected as the demand for EVs grows.

It’s worth remembering, then, that Indonesia is, by far, the dominant player in nickel, its estimated 1 million metric tonne production dwarfing even the Philippines in second place, and both rely heavily on rain-forest laterite deposits. For now, those problems seem remote — or at least, as I said, out of the public’s eye — but since batteries have won the emissions-reduction war, the battleground of the future is no longer internal combustion versus EV, but one environmental challenge versus another.

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There does seem a glimmer of hope on the horizon. A Canadian start-up called The Metals Company (TMC) proposes that we get many of these precious metals from the sea. Or, more accurately, from “polymetallic nodules” lying on the sea floor some 4,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific. According to TMC, there’s enough of these constituent metals to power every car on Earth.

And, unlike trampling on rainforests, the process is also environmentally friendly — a robotic submarine blows all the surrounding detritus off the nodule before it’s sucked up to a storage ship on the surface. TMC claims its process is so clean, in fact, that it can deliver “key battery metals with up to 90 per cent fewer lifecycle carbon emissions.” Mining.com, meanwhile, says that the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean is the largest undeveloped nickel resource on the planet, with “more than enough battery metals to power one billion EVs.” The only thing stopping the process, says TMC, is permission from the governing authority, the International Seabed Authority, to start a pilot project.

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It’s worth remembering, however, that, even if TMC’s projections are true, that nickel and lithium are but two of the many constituents in a modern automobile. Other metals, including cobalt, on which Congo has a near-monopoly — adding a soupcon of child labour to its unsavouriness — face equal or even more pressing issues. Depending on which expert you believe and which timeline you’re estimating, we’re going to need somewhere between 30 to 60 times more lithium, five to 10 times more nickel, and, unfortunately, lots more cobalt than we’ve got today if we are to produce the EVs that we’ve deemed the only salvation to tailpipe emissions.

If you thought the fight between green activists and climate deniers was protracted, wait till you see what happens when environmentalists start fighting one another.

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