Resource extraction for EV batteries a fraction of oil and gas industry

A satellite image of the lithium mining operation in Silver Peak, Nevada, from December 8, 2022. Lithium is a soft, light, silvery-white metal most concentrated and easily mined -- notably in briny groundwater aquifers found beneath desert salt flats.A satellite image of the lithium mining operation in Silver Peak, Nevada, from December 8, 2022. Lithium is a soft, light, silvery-white metal most concentrated and easily mined -- notably in briny groundwater aquifers found beneath desert salt flats. (Image: National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

By Jasper Jolly
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd.

The scars left on the earth by the search for battery minerals are regularly trotted out by opponents of the transition away from fossil fuels. About 0.1 percent of the Earth’s habitable land is used in mining, but less than 0.01 percent was used for battery minerals.

In the deserts of Chile, the Australian outback and the plains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Earth is being peeled back and the water sucked up and dried out to find the minerals needed to feed the world’s need for electric cars.

The extraction of battery materials is due to expand on a grand scale. That will leave a trail of mining – often with local environmental degradation – in its wake. The right-wing politician turned pundit Nigel Farage last month wrote of electric vehicles’ “nasty secret” and the “strain” on the environment from mining for minerals used in electric cars.

Beyond the environmental impact, there is also the issue of child labour and exploitation of artisanal miners, which is rife in some parts of the DRC at cobalt mines, according to reports by the human rights group Amnesty International and others.

News media casts doubt on EV benefits

A recent headline in the Daily Telegraph newspaper claimed: “Electric cars are made of pollution and human misery.” A Washington Post headline claimed the electric vehicle transition was driven by “blood batteries.”

Related: Plug-in hybrids offer great value for drivers who fear sacrificing long-distance travel

The data company Benchmark Mineral Intelligence forecasts global demand for lithium, the key battery metal, will quadruple to 3m tonnes in 2030, outstripping supply.

Yet overall, the mineral use for electric cars is much, much lower than petrol and diesel as soon as oil enters the equation. Transport & Environment (T&E), a Brussels-based think tank, found that a petrol car will burn an average of 17,000 litres of oil in its lifetime – about 12.5 tonnes.

And most criticisms of electric cars’ mineral use miss a hugely important point: the majority of battery materials used in cars are likely to be recycled. That will drastically cut down the amount of wasted material compared with fossil fuels which disappear invisibly but harmfully to heat the planet.