This commentary is from John McClaughry, vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.
Over the past decade, the most popular idea for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat the threat of climate change has been to subsidize the purchase of electric vehicles so that even low-income people and disadvantaged can obtain one.
Vermont has gone one step further by adhering to California Air Resources Board dictates that will prevent dealers from buying or selling an internal combustion-powered car or light truck by 2035.
From a policy perspective, the most attractive feature of boosting electric vehicles, like the clean heat standard put forward by the House last week (H.715), is that neither involves a visible carbon tax.
The EV depends on government subsidies. The Clean Heat Standard – the crown jewel of Vermont’s climate change movement – will ingeniously tax heating oil customers to subsidize a switch to heat pumps and pellet stoves, and further weatherization of the House. Heating oil customers will blame their oil distributor, not their regulators, for driving up prices.
Electric vehicle drivers have to deal with range anxiety and charging time trauma. The former decreases with better battery technology (over 300 miles on a charge, as long as it’s not too far below zero). The latter is solved by an expensive profusion of charging stations funded by Washington’s infrastructure grants.
An additional incentive for electric vehicles is the exemption from fuel taxes which bring about 30% of the VTrans highway budget. Paying motorists’ share of the maintenance of state roads and bridges is left to the owners of disadvantaged internal combustion cars and trucks.
To be fair, EVs offer sleek looks, hare starts, comfortable rides, juicy federal and state subsidies, and fuel tax exemption. Their vulnerable point is the thousand pound battery. Repeated discharge and recharge cycles degrade it, and operation in cold climates decreases performance and battery life, reasonably estimated at 15 years.
The Climate Council’s Climate Action Plan has adopted the totally unachievable goal of increasing Vermont’s current number of 4,360 electric vehicles to 170,000 within the next nine years. Perhaps with that in mind, VELCO says it will need $2.2 billion in improved grid capacity to keep up with the electrification push.
An EV owner should plan to spend $12,000 for the replacement battery installed. If something goes wrong with the battery or its electronic control system, can you find a qualified technician readily available to get you back on the road? Would you put a new battery in an electric vehicle driven on Vermont roads for 15 or even eight years? Would your car and its tired old battery be worth trading in for a new one? Worth thinking about.
It’s also worth thinking about, especially if you’re a fan of “environmental justice,” where the crucial battery components, including lithium, cobalt and nickel, come from.
In one widely read essay, Tom Harris, executive director of the Canada-based International Coalition for Climate Science, wrote that the 1,000-pound lithium-ion EV battery contains 25 pounds of lithium, mined from 25,000 pounds of brines mostly in Tibet and Argentina-Chile-Bolivia. He reports that the Tibetan (China) mine “resulted in the death of poisonous fish and the carcasses of cows and yaks floating on the river completely poisoned”.
Harris cites a UN report that “Indigenous communities who have lived in the lithium-rich Andean (desert) region of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia for centuries have had to fight miners to gain access to land and to communal water. … Some estimates show that around 1.9 million liters of water are needed to produce one tonne of lithium.
Harris reports that the 30 pounds of cobalt in an EV battery requires 30,000 pounds of ore to be processed. Two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Congo has at least 40,000 children – some as young as 4 – working with their parents for less than $2 a day”, plagued by landslides, toxic and radioactive water, dust and dangerous air laden with cobalt, lead and uranium. Much of the ore is sent to China to be refined there by the Chinese company Dongfang International Mining Co.
As for nickel, The Washington Post reports (March 16, 2022) that Russia supplies about 20% of the high-quality “Class 1” nickel used in most electric car batteries. Most of it is produced in Norilsk in Siberia, set up as a forced labor camp high above the Arctic Circle, now one of the most polluted cities in the world.
So, enviros, continue to enjoy your taxpayer-subsidized electric vehicle to reduce CO2 emissions from gasoline and diesel fuel that could help keep the global average temperature rise to within one degree Celsius by the end of this century. It is important to feel good about yourself.