Re: “Thacker Pass mine important for Nevada,” Feb. 22:
In his opinion column, Glenn Miller claims that replacing fossil fuel cars with cars that use lithium-ion batteries will “provide a major contribution to reducing the impacts of climate change.” This is simply not true.
He is right that “the transportation sector is responsible for about 30 percent of carbon dioxide release.” But electrifying this sector, as Miller suggests, would not make much of a dent in that 30 percent.
Why? Because mining, refining and shipping raw materials manufacturing batteries, and assembling and shipping electric cars all require fossil fuels, and are responsible for substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Roughly 61 percent of U.S. electrical power comes from oil, coal and natural gas (with nuclear power and hydropower, both ecological disasters, producing another 25 percent). Powering an EV from this electric grid is far from carbon-free.
If the Thacker Pass lithium mine is built, mining operations will burn tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel a day, and release more than 150,000 tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent annually, similar emissions to a small city. Chemical processing of the lithium would also require fossil fuel inputs — specifically, massive quantities of sulfur sourced from oil refineries. Burning diesel and using molten sulfur from oil refineries to mine lithium will only exacerbate the climate change crisis.
Once you factor in these greenhouse gas emissions, it is likely all these EVs will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only a few percentage points.
Miller claims that the Thacker Pass lithium mine is “benign.” Yet this mine will completely destroy nearly 6,000 acres of old-growth sagebrush habitat at Thacker Pass and, because of new roads, loud noise and other disruptions, possibly make the entire pass uninhabitable for many of the species who live there now. Describing a mine like this as “benign” is highly immoral when one considers the devastating impacts over-development and extraction have already had on many of the species who now call Thacker Pass home, including the greater sage-grouse, a threatened species one would think an environmental scientist like Glenn Miller would care more about.
As Miller describes in his article, the Thacker Pass mine will supply lithium to the Tesla Gigafactory where Panasonic produces the batteries for electric vehicles (EVs). Tesla’s Elon Musk has stated that his goal is to produce 20 million EVs per year by 2030. Using Miller’s estimate that the Thacker Pass mine will produce 80,000 tons of lithium-carbonate equivalent annually, and estimating 80Kg of lithium-carbonate equivalent for a 100kwh Tesla battery, that means to supply the lithium for 20 million car batteries will require 23 Thacker Pass mines. To replace the US’s 300 million cars and light trucks will require 340 Thacker Pass mines. Of course, this doesn’t include the iron-ore mines, copper mines, cobalt mines, graphite mines, nickel mines and other mines that will also be required to supply materials for all these batteries.
Can you imagine the devastation that these mines would create in the United States and around the world?
Replacing the U.S.’s 300 million cars with EVs makes no sense unless the electric grid used to charge those EVs produces no greenhouse gas emissions, and has enough batteries to store electricity to supply demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. In their recent paper, “Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition,” Megan Seibert and William Rees estimate that “constructing enough lithium batteries to store only 12 hours’ worth of daily power consumption would require 18 months’ worth of global primary energy production and the entire global supply of several minerals.”
The big picture is that the Thacker Pass mine will barely make a dent in the lithium needed to replace fossil-fueled cars with EVs, much less the lithium that would be required to store the energy on the electric grid required to charge all those EVs, while also providing electrical power to homes and businesses.
Are we going to destroy the planet to try to save the planet from climate change? Or can we recognize that the only future that doesn’t require destroying the planet is learning to live with a whole lot less? Rather than spending our energy and effort trying to replace one kind of car with another, and destroying much of the living planet doing so, we’d all be a lot better off (and so would the greater sage-grouse) if we’d learn how to live without cars. Most of the people reading this will have great grandparents who didn’t have a car. We can learn how to live without them once again if we try. And if we do, we won’t have to explain to our grandchildren why we drove the greater sage-grouse into extinction just so we could have cars.
Photo by Max Wilbert.