Thomas Gallatin / Feb. 9, 2021

The ‘Clean Electric Vehicle’ Fairy Tale

The pollution difference between electric- and gas-powered vehicles simply isn’t what the environmental lobby would have you believe.

Are people who drive electric vehicles better people than those who do not? Or maybe a better way to frame the question is this: Are electric vehicles morally superior to gas-powered vehicles? The dominant popular narrative answer to both those questions would be in the affirmative. After all, “green energy is clean energy.” However, the dirty little secret is that the “green” associated with electric vehicles is far from clean or free of pollution.

This is not to discount the amazing technological developments that have come about in the electric vehicle industry. Rather, this criticism is aimed at dispelling the popular misnomer of green equating to clean. Electric vehicles are not morally superior to gas-powered cars. Each have advantages and disadvantages that any considerate consumer should weigh according to their own interests and concerns and not simply imbibe the propaganda of dubious activists or outright ecofascists.

There are at least three significant factors that compromise the popular image of electric vehicles being more environmentally “responsible.” First, there’s the highly toxic nature of lithium batteries, which are the essential component in making electric vehicles possible. Second is the disposal of spent batteries. Third is the means by which power is generated for those batteries.

The mining and extraction process to acquire the massive amounts of lithium needed to meet the ever-growing world demand has been causing quite the polluting mess. As Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, stated in 2009, “Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells. This isn’t a green solution — it’s not a solution at all.” And it’s not only the extraction of lithium that’s problematic, but also other essential and highly toxic products such as cobalt that are needed make these batteries. Much of this mineral extraction happens in countries that don’t share the same concern for protecting the local environment as espoused by those in the West.

Meanwhile, there’s the reality of the environmental impact of aging and disposed batteries. For the most part, the polluting days of gas-powered vehicles ends when the vehicle no longer runs, while the issue of dealing with spent lithium batteries must continue. No parking the old electric in a junk yard and letting it rust away with little concern.

Finally, there’s the issue of powering. While green energy fans love their renewables like wind and solar, the fact of the matter is that neither offer the amount or consistency to meet the energy needs of today’s world, let alone a world where more and more folks are driving around in electric vehicles.

An ironic video clip has recently resurfaced featuring Kristin Zimmerman, a prominent member of General Motor’s Chevy Volt design team, in which she admits that 95% of the electricity used to power the vehicle is generated by coal power. That video is years old, and the numbers have shifted some, but coal is still a major source. What would truly work to cut down on the pollution from electric vehicles would be to increase the number of nuclear power plants producing reliable energy. But environmental activists shun nuclear. Until then, the notion that electric vehicles are significantly more environmentally responsible than gas-powered autos will continue to remain a popular fairy tale.

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