EPA is ignoring the glaring problem with dirty electric vehicles.

August 8, 2023

Originally published by The Hill. Opinion by Benjamin Zycher.

The Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) has launched a new regulatory effort to force a massive transportation shift to electric vehicles (EVs) with its proposed “multi-pollutant emissions standards” for light- and medium-duty vehicles beginning with model year 2027.

The reality, however, is that the proposed rule has little to do with “pollutants.” Instead, it is an attempt by the Biden administration to force an economy-wide transformation away from conventional cars and trucks in favor of EVs. This is a complex policy nostrum, poorly thought through and replete with adverse consequences that proponents are determined to ignore.

The harsh realities of EVs are the reason regulatory agencies have tried so hard to force ever more such vehicles upon the market in ways insulated from democratic accountability.

The EPA justifies its proposed rule on the grounds of what it refers to as a climate change “threat.” Under the explicit assumptions and estimated effects asserted by the EPA in the proposed rule, the temperature effect of the rule in 2100 would be about 0.023°C. This is calculated applying the EPA’s own climate model under assumptions that exaggerate the future effects of reduced emissions of greenhouse gases.

Even this all-cost-no-benefit outcome is only one major problem. Another is the array of environmental and cost implications of obtaining the materials needed to produce EV batteries.

As a crude generalization, EV batteries weigh a half ton or more. Each contains roughly 30 pounds of lithium, 60 pounds of cobalt, 130 pounds of nickel, 190 pounds of graphite, 90 pounds of copper and about 400 pounds of steel, aluminum and plastics.

Mark P. Mills of the Manhattan Institute has done the attendant arithmetic on the amount of mining needed to produce these quantities for a single EV battery. By his estimate, each battery requires the extraction of 20,000 pounds of lithium brines, 60,000 pounds of cobalt ore, 10,000 pounds of nickel ore, 2,000 pounds of graphite ore and 12,000 pounds of copper ore.

This tally excludes three to seven tons of what is known as the “overburden” for each ton of ore — that is, “the materials first dug up to get to the ore.” It also excludes the environmental burden involved in extracting and refining materials to produce the steel, aluminum and other less uncommon materials that go into EV batteries.

“Similar emissions uncertainties,” Mills adds, “are associated with producing the power for EV charging stations.”

Consider also the cost implications of a massive increase in the demand for the needed minerals. At a global level, scale diseconomies in the production of such minerals are a certainty, as production expands toward mineral resources less concentrated  that is, ores more costly to exploit.

For lithium, the largest reserves are located in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, the U.S., Australia and China. It is obvious that a supply crunch and rising prices are inevitable. “Earth has approximately 88 million tonnes of lithium,” Popular Mechanics recently noted, “but only one-quarter is economically viable to mine as reserves.”

The same supply-price dynamic exists for cobaltnickelgraphite and copper. Note that China is among the major suppliers of all of these. It is not unreasonable to expect that political considerations will influence Chinese supply behavior, a potential problem in various short-run scenarios.

Proponents of a massive shift toward EVs have attempted to avert attention from this central reality of mineral needs. This does not bode well for policymaking. EVs are expensive — on average about $20,000 more than their conventional counterparts — and will become more so.

Direct purchase subsidies in the U.S. are subject to several conditions; far from reducing costs, they merely shift them onto taxpayers. The indirect subsidies take the form of higher prices on conventional vehicles, the inexorable implication of the mandated market shares for EVs. And EVs’ operating costs do not differ by much from those of conventional vehicles, once depreciation is included in the cost comparison.

The very fact that massive subsidies are needed to make EVs even marginally competitive suggests that the lack of enthusiasm on the part of consumers is no accident. EVs cannot satisfy a wide range of consumer needs, and they also create their own set of environmental problems.

The EPA’s proposed rule should not be finalized.

Benjamin Zycher is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.