Environmentalists take aim at the mining projects required to obtain the lithium and other minerals required to build electric car batteries. If electric cars are to work, we need lithium, lots of it, 42 times more than we produce today, but buckwheat found in Nevada stands in the way of a critical new mine. The result is a case study in how nothing is ever green enough.
President Joe Biden is big on electric cars. In fact, he wants to spend a whopping $174 billion on investments in electric vehicles as part of his proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan, making it the largest single line item in the entire transportation sector. This $174 billion would be spent building 500,000 vehicle chargers, modifying factories to better build electric vehicles, tax incentives for buyers, and investments in the domestic supply chain to give us a competitive edge over other countries.
He also plans to replace the entire Federal Government fleet of 650,000 vehicles with electric models. “The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America made by American workers,” the President said in a January press conference.
As of today, electric vehicles only account for about 2% of sales, though the auto industry expects a 25 fold increase by 2030, bringing sales to parity with traditional internal combustion engines. This shift to electric transportation has long been seen as an absolute necessity to fight global warming. The transportation sector in the United States is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and cars and light trucks are responsible for about 60% of those emissions. As Vox.com puts it, “EVs would be a huge step toward meeting Biden’s goal of decarbonizing the US economy by 2050, alongside a decarbonization of the power sector.”
The linearity and simplicity of this thinking has always been taken entirely for granted. Fossil fuels are bad, vehicles that run on fossil fuels contribute to that badness, therefore electric vehicles simply have to be good. Such little consideration was given to what it takes to actually build an electric vehicle and power it, a casual observer might well reach the conclusion they ran entirely on pixie dust, or perhaps sunshine and rainbows. The mainstream media is only now discovering that is not, in fact, the case, and electric vehicles might not be so good for the environment after all. Hence, a pair of stories, one in The New York Times and the other on CNN, about the potentially devastating impact of going electric.
Both media organizations are suddenly very concerned about the lithium required to produce batteries for electric cars. I say “suddenly” because lithium has been the preferred battery material for everything from phones to cars for decades now. Compared to older technologies like nickel-cadmium (familiar to anyone with a radio controlled car in the 1980s), it is much lighter, stores more energy per cubic inch, and can be recharged far more times. Powering a phone or a laptop only requires a battery of a few ounces or pounds, but a car requires a lot more: The smallest battery available in a Tesla Model 3, their entry level electric model, weighs over a thousand pounds. The larger Model S is around 1,200 pounds. That means they need a lot of lithium.
Mining, of course, is environmentally intensive, potentially even worse for the environment than drilling or fracking for oil and gas. The Times and CNN focused on a project planned for Nevada, Lithium Americas. As the Grey Lady describes it, “Lithium Americas, has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious ground water, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.” They quote Max Wilbert, currently living in a tent on the proposed site in protest. “Blowing up a mountain isn’t green, no matter how much marketing spin people put on it.”
Ultimately, the Times concludes that the “The fight over the Nevada mine is emblematic of a fundamental tension surfacing around the world: Electric cars and renewable energy may not be as green as they appear. Production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people.” They’ve even found a culprit to blame, politics and big business. In other words, the usual suspects. “That environmental toll has often been overlooked in part because there is a race underway among the United States, China, Europe and other major powers. Echoing past contests and wars over gold and oil, governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come.”
The proximate cause of CNN’s concern is a plant with yellow flowers, Tiehm’s buckwheat, native to Nevada. An Australian mining company, Ioneer, has plans to break ground later this year, atop an estimated 146.5 million metric tons of lithium and boron, valued at $1.265 billion, and, you guessed it, environmentalists are trying to stop the project to save the buckwheat. “Environmentalists say the benefits of Tiehm’s buckwheat could be vast, but its full significance is unknown. What’s certain, they say, is that guarding Tiehm’s buckwheat is important for preserving biodiversity on Earth.”
Yes, a plant hidden in a tiny part of Nevada that was only discovered 40 years ago is now a critical part of Earth’s biodiversity that might hold untold benefits for mankind. Did they just watch Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco in Medicine Man? For it’s part, Ioneer is sensibly sensitive to the optics of going up against environmentalists in public and they are planning to relocate the plant to another location away from the mine. The plan would keep about 20% of the buckwheat at the mine site and move 80% to a similar, nearby environment. Of course, this is not enough, because nothing is never enough and they question the claim that the plant can live anywhere else.
Lost in the muddle is the fact that there are 254 other species of buckwheat in the world, 80 in Nevada, and 11 exclusive to Nevada. In short, there is no shortage of buckwheat out there and no threat to our biodiversity. We didn’t even know about this particular species of buckwheat prior to 1983, likely because the residents of Nevada assumed it was one of the other almost dozen kinds unique to their state. For years now, the “endangered species” scam has been to define a species based on its presence in a tiny area and then claim it’s endangered when there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other varieties of essentially the same thing. If I had to guess, this isn’t a species at all in the traditional sense of the word, as in a dog or a cat. It’s merely a local variety, one the endless variations nature churns out.
Either way, the Center for Biological Diversity is pushing the Federal Government to declare it an endangered species and essentially kill the new mine. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to rule later this month. Incredibly, the fracas over these plants has been going on for almost a year now. In September of last year thousands of the plants died in mysterious circumstances, prompting environmentalists to claim there was a “scheme to hurt the plants” according to CNN. The Federal Government swept in and studied the situation, only to determine that squirrels and other rodents were the culprit, going after the roots because of dry conditions. Naomi Fraga, director of conservation programs at the California Botanical Garden still isn’t satisfied. She claims the study wouldn’t hold up to peer review and declares that this “isn’t the nail in the coffin that closes the case.”
As I said nothing, will ever be enough. We could study this buckwheat until the end of time and there would still be some other concern. Regrettably, we can expect more, much more of this in the near future. If we are to meet the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement, the world will need a whopping 42 times more lithium in less than a decade. This, of course, means a lot more mines. In fact, the International Energy Agency believes that even new mines under construction will only account for about half the demand.
What is the answer? Centralized planning, apparently. Dale Jamieson, an NYU professor of environment and philosophy believes the Federal Government should be in charge of industrial planning. “Lithium looks good now. How will lithium look in 10 years?” Jamieson said. “We do know that extinction is forever.” Yes, and we also know that the government is chock-a-block with rabid environmentalists, meaning no mine would be approved ever that way either.
In the meantime, haven’t we been told for years that global warming is a planetary extinction level event and the survival of the entire human race is in doubt? Now, we’re supposed to sacrifice all that to save a plant that grows on 10 acres. I’d say you couldn’t make this up if you tried, but this is the environmentalists game and has been for a long time: They’re against everything and anything. Electric cars were a convenient dodge when no one took them seriously, but now that companies are placing big bets on the future, they’re bad, very bad. Just wait until they figure out the electricity stored in the batteries needs to be produced somehow, somewhere…