Fact Check: The Carbon Footprint Of Electric Car Battery Production Is NOT Worse Than Air Travel And Traditional Vehicles

Fact Check

  • by: Marlo Lee

STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.

Fact Check: The Carbon Footprint Of Electric Car Battery Production Is NOT Worse Than Air Travel And Traditional Vehicles Needs Work

Is the carbon footprint of mining the materials for electric car batteries greater than the carbon footprint of one year's U.S. air travel, are those batteries impossible to recycle and is this proof electric vehicles are worse for the planet than internal combustion vehicles? No, that's not true: The claims are made without providing credible sources of information. Plus, it is illogical to compare a single year's aviation fuel use to a single year's mining fuel use and then draw conclusions about carbon footprint without at least reducing both to a ratio.

Air travel and car travel address very different needs. The average lifespan of an electric car is about 100,000 miles or eight years for mostly short trips while plane tickets are single use and for average distances of around 500 miles, rendering the e-car/plane comparison meaningless. Electric car battery parts are recyclable, as are the lead/acid batteries used to start internal combustion vehicles and store electricity. Lead Stories asked several experts to analyze the claims. They said the claims are illogically arranged and do not present a true picture of the energy efficiency of electric vehicles.

The claim originated from a Facebook post (archived here) on August 12, 2021. It reads:

Total fuel consumption of U.S. airlines is approximately 19 billion gallons annually. Total fuel consumption for mining Ore for construction of electric car batteries is approximately 21 billion gallons annually. The 21 billion gallons of fuel burned can only produce enough Ore to build 250,000 electric car batteries. The lifespan of an electric battery is 10 years and is not renewable. By 2050 these batteries will fill landfills with 50 million pounds of waste that does not break down. I wonder if people would still believe in electric power cars, vehicles or equipment if they knew how massive the carbon emissions footprint really was? 🤷🏻‍♂️

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Facebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Sep 7 14:44:57 2021 UTC)

Comparing planes to e-cars

A transportation expert said the Facebook post makes several errors in making this comparison. Lucien Mathieu, an electric transportation analyst for the European nonprofit Transport & Environment, wrote to Lead Stories on September 7, 2021, that the more relevant comparison is gas cars to electric cars, as shown in this report on the lifetime impact of battery electric cars.

"This is completely incorrect," he said of the Facebook post's implication about e-car environmental impact. "The production of the battery alone (including resource extraction, refining and cell production) emits ten times less CO2 emissions then the fuel used to power a combustion car during its lifetime. That's for a battery produced in Europe. For a battery produced in China (worst case scenario) the ratio is seven."

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson agreed, in a September 7, 2021, email, that comparing fuel consumption by an airplane and the fuel consumption needed to create electric car batteries was illogical.

The assumption that all EV batteries will end up in landfills is misleading. There is significant potential for reusing and recycling batteries and Agencies across the U.S. government are working on this issue. The Federal Consortium on Advanced Batteries recently released a National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, setting a long term-objective of a 90% recycling rate. The use for recycled materials can also significantly decrease the energy needed for battery production. See the U.S. Department of Energy's ReCell Center for more information.

The comparison of fuel used by aircraft vs. fuel used for mining to create batteries is misleading. On the aircraft side, they are including only fuel consumed and not any fuel associated with extracting and refining the fuel or manufacturing the plane while on the EV side they are considering only fuel consumed from mining the battery. Comparing the environmental impact of an electric vehicle to the gasoline vehicle it would displace is a better comparison. As we note on our Green Vehicle Guide site (see Myth #5), greenhouse gas emissions associated with an electric vehicle over its lifetime are typically lower than those from an average gasoline-powered vehicle, even when accounting for battery manufacturing. To compare the environmental impacts of an electric car to flying (e.g., the total CO2 emissions per mile traveled, per passenger), consideration should be given to a variety of additional factors, including the type of fuel used by the plane, how many passengers are on board, the emissions associated with manufacturing the aircraft, and its expected lifetime.

Jarod Cory Kelly, a principal energy system analyst at Argonne National Laboratory, a Department of Energy facility, was asked if it is true that 21 billion gallons of fuel are used to mine ore for electric car batteries. He did a rough calculation using GREET (greenhouse gases, regulated emissions and energy use in transportation) to find the fuel amount needed to create electric car batteries.

The claim is entirely too vague ... There are so many materials in batteries derived from a multitude of different ores. The basic claim that the battery cannot be recycled is incorrect on its face but many of the specific materials in the cathode are yet to be economically recycled. Battery housings, current collectors, etc. are all highly recycled and not put to landfill.

In terms of production: worldwide there were ~3 million EVs sold globally in 2020; in the US 761,000 EVs were sold in 2020. That goes against the idea of 250k EV batteries annually for 19 B gallons of "fuel" (also what "fuel"?). There would simply not be that amount of stockpiled material to achieve those production rates if only 250k batteries could be produced annually.

I don't have any specific scholarly articles that I've found that refute the claims made. But, I did a very rough calculation using GREET. If we assume 250,000 batteries (per the claim) are produced for a 300 miles range EV with NMC111 batteries. Then each battery's life cycles total energy consumption in production is ~72 mmBtu. If we convert that to gallons of "fuel", I'll just assume gasoline b/c, then that is ~623 gallons consumed to produce the battery total (i.e. all processes for extraction, manufacturing, etc.). If we scale that to the claimed 250k batteries, that totals 156 million gallons of "fuel". To be clear, this isn't addressing the claim straight on, but it is more inclusive of total consumed energy. It is also two orders of magnitude smaller than the claim.

David Reichmuth, a senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, broke down each claim and explained why they were misleading and/or false in a September 8, 2021, email:

This is a list of unrelated and inaccurate statistics, with no sources given. Still, let's break this down.

First - what are the claims even talking about? The first three lines talk about "fuel consumption", the fourth and fifth sentences are about landfill waste, but the concluding rhetorical question is about carbon footprint. So, even if the statistics were true, this conclusion doesn't make logical sense from the claims.

Second - the numbers are wrong and/or misleading. For example, it's claimed that 21 billion gallons of fuel are used annually for mining battery materials and that this is only enough material for 250,000 cars. If true, that would mean 84,000 gallons of "fuel" consumed per vehicle battery, which is obviously incorrect. Even at $2/gallon, that would mean >$160,000 of fuel costs alone per vehicle battery, while Bloomberg New Energy finance puts a the cost of a 60 kWh battery (energy, raw materials and production). at about $8,000.

According the GREET model from Argonne National Laboratory, the petroleum consumption in battery production for an electric vehicle is around 18 - 23 gallons of petroleum (if we assume diesel), or less than 2 gallons per year for the average lifetime vehicle.

The other claims are wrong too. The lifespan of an electric battery is more than 10 years, they are now at least partially recyclable, and the landfill claim is too vague to address.

Third - we should be looking at the total "lifecycle" emissions from gasoline and electric vehicles. That means looking at all of the emissions from manufacturing and also all emissions from using vehicles. When we do that, it's clear that electric vehicles have lower total emissions than a comparable gasoline car.

Updates:

  • 2021-09-20T18:32:26Z 2021-09-20T18:32:26Z
    Updated Sept. 20, 2021, to add link to PDF of Transport & Environment report.

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Marlo Lee is a fact checker at Lead Stories. She is a graduate of Howard University with a B.S. in Biology. Her interest in fact checking started in college, when she realized how important it became in American politics. She lives in Maryland.

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