Data shows that electric vehicles (EVs) do less damage to the natural world over their lifespans than gas-powered cars and trucks do.
However, building EVs entails substantial environmental damage before the cars hit the road.
That dilemma is embodied in what the industry has come to call the “nickel pickle.”
Building an EV uses a lot of nickel in the battery pack and motor as well as other parts—but getting hold of that nickel is an environmental disaster: rainforests are clearcut, giant pits are gouged into the Earth, the ore is refined by burning fossil fuels to create intense heat and pressure, and the process leaves a toxic slurry that’s hard to manage.
This dark side of EV manufacture is on display in Indonesia, which holds the world’s largest nickel deposits. Last year, the island nation delivered half of the nickel used in EV batteries, up from no more than 5 percent in 2017, according to commodities research firm CRU.
The ore there is close to the surface and easy to mine, but only after forests are chopped down and burned or hauled away.
In 2021 alone, clearing Indonesia’s forests to get to the ore released greenhouse gasses equivalent to 56,000 tons of carbon dioxide—the same amount as driving 12,000 gas-powered cars for a year, according to a Wall Street Journal calculation using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That environmental disaster is offset by the metal’s key role in creating nonpolluting vehicles, a company spokesman for Nickel Industries, which mines in the island nation, told the WSJ.
Nickel is guilty of more than a third of the carbon emissions let loose in building a common kind of EV battery, more than any other source, according to a Tesla report.
Although building an EV creates more environmental pollution than building a gas buggy, an EV’s total emissions score falls below that of a conventional car after less than two years of driving, the Tesla report noted.
Until 2018, most of the world’s nickel was produced in northern latitudes, especially in Canada and Russia. Nickel there is of higher quality and easier to process, but lies deep underground so is more expensive and troublesome to dig out.
Since then, the auto industry has had a growing hunger for lower-priced nickel as demand for EVs began to surge.
Car makers had already begun to substitute nickel for cobalt in some EV applications after public outcry over child labor and dangerous working conditions in cobalt mines in Africa.
Nickel deposits like Indonesia’s are quicker to get at, but processing the lower-grade ore involves splashing the ore with sulfuric acid, then heating it above 400°F under tremendous pressure.
This refining process releases almost twice as much carbon per unit of ore than refining nickel ore from farther north.
Also, the process’s waste sludge is harder to dispose of in the tropics, where earthquakes and frequent heavy rains destabilize soils.
In 2018, Indonesia began allowing mining companies to dump the toxic waste into the ocean, a move that enraged groups seeking to protect marine life.
China, the world’s leading producer of EVs, also dominates Indonesia’s nickel processing industry—and China has never been known for its environmental stewardship.
TRENDPOST: Once EVs are on the road, they produce less net pollution than petro-powered vehicles, even accounting for the fossil fuels used to produce the electricity that charges their batteries.
However, as usual, the rush to meet spiking demand for a commodity has left aside the environmental consequences of its production. This is especially true among developing nations desperate for cash and jobs, such as Indonesia, as well as among aggressively ambitious nations such as China.
While the electric mobility revolution reduces air pollution and slows greenhouse gas accumulations, it leaves a stream of ground and water pollution in its wake.
Manufacturing is never clean. However, EVs won’t be really green until makers pay as much attention to cleaning up the waste stream from their manufacture as they do to squeezing a few more miles from a charge.