A new paper published Tuesday, November 17, by the conservative think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), raises environmental concerns with electric vehicles in what appears to be the latest attempt by organizations associated with fossil fuel funding to pump the brakes on the transportation sector’s transition away from petroleum and towards cleaner electricity.
In the U.S., the transportation sector is the largest contributor to planet-warming emissions. Climate and energy policy experts say electrifying vehicles is necessary to mitigate these emissions.
In fact, scientists recently warned that if the country has any hope of reaching the Paris climate targets of limiting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), 90 percent of all light-duty cars on the road must be electric by 2050.
But the Competitive Enterprise Institute — a longtime disseminator of disinformation on climate science and supported by petroleum funding sources including the oil giant ExxonMobil and petrochemical billionaire Koch foundations — dismisses this imperative and instead tries to portray electrified transport as environmentally problematic in a paper titled, “Would More Electric Vehicles Be Good for the Environment?”
“This is a grab bag of old and misleading claims about EVs [electric vehicles],” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the clean transportation program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If you want to answer this question [posed by the report’s title], you have to also look at the question of what are the impacts of the current gasoline and diesel transport system, and this report just ignores that.”
The CEI report is authored by Ben Lieberman, a senior fellow at the institute who has a long track record of casting doubt on the science of climate change and the severity of climate risk. He subtly expresses this dismissal of the climate threat in the introduction of his paper, writing: “Niche status for EVs is not good enough for those who consider climate change an existential threat, especially since transportation contributes nearly one-third of American emissions of carbon dioxide.”
According to David Pomerantz, executive director of the watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute, Lieberman and CEI are not credible authorities on matters of climate policy, like increasing electric vehicle adoption, given their embrace of anti-science ideology.
“If someone has spent much of their career denying climate change is a problem, and now that person writes an opinion piece masquerading as a white paper essentially saying ‘EVs are bad because they don’t do enough to address climate change’ — and that person is writing on behalf of an entity funded by oil companies — perhaps we ought not take their arguments, all of which have been made and debunked before, in good faith,” Pomerantz told DeSmog via email.
Reichmuth agreed that Lieberman’s paper doesn’t appear to be written in good faith. “This is designed to try to create a both-sides, ‘I’m just asking questions’ narrative to slow the transition to electric vehicles down,” he said. “This isn’t a real assessment.”
CEI did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this “not in good faith” characterization of the report.
Other papers published by entities tied to fossil fuel funding have raised similar misleading claims that electric vehicles aren’t any better for the environment than gasoline-powered cars. The Manhattan Institute (another recipient of Koch and ExxonMobil cash), for example, argued in a 2018 report that broad adoption of electric vehicles would lead to more air pollution and little climate benefit — claims that energy experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute and elsewhere, including DeSmog, have debunked.
The CEI Report’s Arguments
The main arguments presented in the new CEI report boil down to critiques of electric battery production and disposal as well as the source of electricity powering those vehicles. Through previous reporting and via the Transportation Integrity Project, DeSmog has debunked these points before.\
While electric vehicles are not without some level of adverse environmental impacts, particularly in the vehicle and battery manufacturing process, CEI uses the rhetorical trick of focusing exclusively on these impacts — in some cases overstating or misrepresenting them — while pretty much ignoring the comparative environmental disadvantages of petroleum-powered transportation. While Lieberman does acknowledge that EVs have no tailpipe and associated emissions, he does not discuss these benefits any further than this brief mention.
One point of discussion focuses on the materials used to manufacture the cars. EV batteries are made from materials like cobalt and lithium, which must be mined in order to be accessed. However, cobalt and lithium are used in many things and aren’t unique to EV technology. Indeed, these materials are widely used in consumer electronics and even in gas-powered cars.
The CEI report claims the environmental impacts resulting from mining for these materials have received “scant attention.” Yet, the issue has been explored in-depth in a June 2020 Congressional Research Service report titled, “Environmental Effects of Battery Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles.” In addition, the human rights issues associated with lithium-ion battery production were called out in 2016 in an Amnesty International report on cobalt mining and child labor and a Washington Post investigation on cobalt mining in the Congo. The Union of Concerned Scientists has for years been discussing such concerns with EV battery materials, along with potential solutions, such as cobalt recycling.
In trying to misleadingly argue that EV batteries and manufacturing are an environmental disaster waiting to happen, the CEI report also points to the energy intensity of manufacturing electric vehicles. And while the process does havesome negative impacts, the emissions from producing these vehicles are more than offset during the vehicles’ operation as there are no tailpipe emissions.
According to sources ranging from Bloomberg New Energy Finance to industry analysts Wood Mackenzie, EVs are hands-down cleaner than their gasoline counterparts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, during vehicle operations and over the full life cycle of the car. Multiple analyses have supported this conclusion, including a study published earlier this year in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability. That study, and others, finds that even in areas more reliant on coal-fired electricity, EVs are cleaner in terms of overall emissions than gasoline vehicles.
Another question is what happens to EVs at the end of their life.EV batteries (typically lithium-ion) are generally landfill-safe, but recycling is also growing.
According to a 2019 analysis by McKinsey & Company, EV battery recycling and reuse are emerging industries with useful repurposing applications, as the batteries could be used in other energy storage applications to help electric grid reliability as more renewable power sources like solar and wind come online. “The need to dispose of millions of EV batteries in the future has already led to the emergence of new recycling and reuse industries, creating new value pools with new potential to harness and integrate renewable power into our grids,” the analysis states, effectively debunking CEI‘s claim thatEV battery disposal and recycling are problematic.
A Defense of the Status Quo
Overall, Lieberman’s paper appears to be less of an objective examination of environmental concerns with EVs and more of a subtle defense of the status quo’s petroleum-dominated transportation system, with the purpose of urging policymakers not to accelerate the shift towards electrified transportation.
Towards the end of his paper, for example, Lieberman claims gasoline-powered vehicles (or internal combustion engine, “ICE,” vehicles) are getting cleaner, and competition from EVs threatens that progress. “Thus, it is not clear whether replacing ICE vehicles with EVs will ever deliver reduced emissions,” he writes. “The bulk of the reduction in emissions in the transportation sector over the last two decades has been due to higher fuel efficiency and lower emissions in ICE vehicles rather than the introduction of EVs. Any continued declines in ICE vehicle emissions would be jeopardized by measures to push them aside in favor of EVs.” Lieberman supports his argument here by citing a report (titled “The Battery Car Delusion”) by another group disseminating climate science denial, the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation.
And, as Reichmuth of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted, Lieberman’s attempt to point to higher fuel efficiency standards in conventional vehicles falls flat considering that CEI has fought to weaken, and even eliminate, these same standards.
“This is the same organization that is suing [over fuel efficiency standards] because they think the Trump rollback didn’t go far enough,” Reichmuth said. “To claim the benefits of the Trump vehicle standards on reducing emissions at the same time as you’re literally in court arguing we shouldn’t have those efficiency standards, it just shows this isn’t a good faith argument.”
CEI did not respond to a request for comment on this observation and criticism.
Reichmuth added that this report, coming from an organization that has long worked to downplay climate risks to stave off policy responses, is not a useful contribution to the public discourse on electric vehicles and climate policy.
“It’s designed to sow doubt and slow the transition [to electric vehicles],” he said. “If you’re coming from a point of view that climate change isn’t real, then maybe EVs don’t make sense, but that’s not reality.”
Main image: Electric vehicle charging.