Commentary: Is the Electric Vehicle for You?

The Climate Council has called for 170,000 heavily subsidized electric vehicles on Vermont’s roads by 2030 – up from 4,360 last year. EVs have some legitimate attractions, but range anxiety and charging time trauma persist. For those boosting EVs while proclaiming “environmental justice”, prominently featured in the Climate Action Plan, mining for battery ingredients cobalt and lithium involve very troublesome consequences, ranging from water consumption to river pollution to unspeakable child labor in the Congo.

For the past decade the most popular idea for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight the Menace of Climate Change has been subsidizing the purchase of electric vehicles so that even low income and disadvantaged people can get one. Vermont has gone even further, signing on the dictates of the California Air Resources Board that will make it impossible for dealers to buy or sell an internal combustion car or light truck by 2035.

From a political standpoint, the most attractive feature of boosting EVs, like the Clean Heat Standard advanced by the House last week (H.715), is that neither involves a visible carbon tax. The EV relies on government subsidies. The Clean Heat Standard - the crown jewel of Vermont’s climate change movement - will ingeniously tax heating oil customers to subsidize switchovers to heat pumps and pellet stoves, and more home weatherization. Heating fuel customers will blame their fuel distributor, not their legislators, for driving up prices.

EV drivers must deal with range anxiety and charging time trauma. The former is diminishing with better battery technology (over 300 miles on a charge, so long as it’s not too far below freezing). The latter is being addressed by a costly profusion of charging stations paid for by the infrastructure grants from Washington. An added EV incentive is exemption from the motor fuel taxes that bring in about 30% of the VTrans highway budget. Paying the motorists’ share of the upkeep of the state’s roads and bridges is left to the owners of disfavored internal combustion cars and trucks.

To be fair about it, EVs do offer stylish looks, jackrabbit starts, comfortable rides, juicy Federal and state subsidies, and the motor fuel tax exemption. Their vulnerable point is the thousand-pound battery. Repeated discharging and recharging cycles degrade it, and operation in cold climates diminishes performance and battery life, reasonably estimated to be fifteen years.

The Climate Council’s Climate Action Plan has adopted the utterly unachievable goal of increasing the present 4,360 Vermont EVs to an astounding 170,000 in the coming nine years. Perhaps with that in mind, VELCO says it will need $2.2 billion in upgraded grid capacity to service the electrification surge.

An EV owner should plan on spending $12,000 for the replacement battery, installed. If something goes wrong with the battery or its electronic control system, can you find a skilled technician readily available to get you back on the road? Would you put a new battery in an EV driven on Vermont roads for fifteen - or even eight – years? Would your car and its tired old battery have any trade in value on a new one? Worth thinking about.

Also worth thinking about, especially if you are a devotee of “environmental justice”, is the provenance of the crucial components of the battery, notably lithium, cobalt, and nickel.

In a widely read essay, Tom Harris, executive director of the Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition, wrote that the 1,000 pound Lithium-ion EV battery contains 25 pounds of lithium, extracted from 25,000 pounds of brines mainly in Tibet and Argentina-Chile-Bolivia. He reports that the Tibetan (China) mine “resulted in dead, toxic fish and carcasses of cows and yaks floating down the thoroughly poisoned River”.

Harris quotes a UN report that “indigenous communities that have lived in the lithium-rich Andean [desert] region of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia for centuries must contend with miners for access to communal land and water…Some estimates show that approximately 1.9 million litres of water is needed to produce a ton of lithium.”

Harris reports that the 30 pounds of cobalt in an EV battery requires processing 30,000 pounds of ore. Two thirds of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Congo has at least 40,000 children – some as young as four years old - working with their parents for less than $2 a day”, beset with cave-ins, toxic, radioactive water, dust, and dangerous air loaded with cobalt, lead and uranium. Much of the ore is sent to China for refining by the Chinese-owned Dongfang International Mining Company.

As for nickel, the Washington Post reports (3/16/22) that Russia supplies about twenty percent of the high-grade “Class 1” nickel used in most electric car batteries. Most of it is produced at Norilsk in Siberia, created as a slave labor camp far above the Arctic Circle, now one of the most egregiously polluted cities in the world.

So, enviros, keep enjoying your taxpayer subsidized EV that reduces CO2 from gasoline and diesel fuel emissions that may contribute to holding the increase in global average temperature to one degree C by the end of this century. It’s important to feel good about your virtuous selves.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.


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