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Environmentalists should lead the charge against electric vehicles

Environmentalists should lead the charge against electric vehicles
© FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

If you want to protect the environment and really care about human rights and the poor, stop investing in plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). Ironically, it was Toyota’s president and CEO, Akio Toyoda, who raised the issue of the brutal realities of PEVs when he recently asked whether politicians understand where the electricity to power them actually comes from.

It’s a good question and, no, apparently the politicians don’t know. Neither do the pension fund and private equity managers who use environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) criteria to justify investing in “green” PEV technology. They should know better, since their industry has made ESG a very big deal.

The answer to Mr. Toyoda’s question is natural gas, which leads to an inconvenient fact. To the extent that manmade greenhouse gases (GHGs) play a role in global warming, the increase in natural gas combustion required to power PEVs will lead to more GHGs being spewed into the air.

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Granted, there may be short-term financial benefits to investing in PEVs, as long as state and federal governments pour incentives into them, and as long as corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards continue to force consumers to supplement their costs. Publicly-owned electric utilities are short-term winners as well, benefitting from customer-mandated funding of new PEV battery-charging stations.

But what about long-term environmental and social impacts? All-electric vehicles are not more efficient than gasoline vehicles. They are natural resource-intensive, exacerbate social injustices, and make little sense unless blue-state governors stop strangling the supply of natural gas into the United States. Investing in PEVs makes zero sense under ESG “green” principles.

The misunderstanding begins with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency was wrong when it developed an “equivalent” fuel mileage calculation that claimed PEVs were three times as efficient as gasoline engines. The misinformation campaign simply reported the efficiency of driving a vehicle with a full tank of gasoline vs. a fully charged battery. It ignored the energy losses incurred when generating electricity and charging the battery. The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), of which I am a member, recently pointed out that “PEVs do not appear to be more fuel efficient than modern internal combustion engine vehicles that are similarly equipped.”

Human rights activists should be repelled by the horrific injustices that come with battery production. The necessary lithium, cobalt and nickel are energy-intensive to mine, and the countries where these metals are harvested do not observe the same environmental restrictions as the United States. Cobalt mining in the Republic of the Congo, the country with the largest proven reserves of cobalt, has been linked to child labor deaths. Cobalt is also in short supply. Estimates indicate the worldwide reserves are woefully insufficient to meet the needs of replacing gasoline vehicles with PEVs. 

Environmentalists should understand that the electricity needed to charge PEV batteries will not come from existing electricity generators. A transfer to PEVs would mean hydrocarbon use would decrease, but our electricity load would increase. Most new generation in this country is coming from natural gas — the most economical energy right now — and the energy that’s better able to fill the gaps created by intermittent output from solar and wind generation. But, the SAB also recognized the increased grid load “could lead to an increase in GHG emissions rather than a reduction.”

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The social costs here in America also would be high. Perverse incentives created by PEV tax credits mean the rich benefit from PEVs. It’s the poor who get stiffed. The poor will pay higher electricity costs thanks to “clean energy” mandates that increase electric bills. They’ll miss out on high-paying jobs, thanks to the failure of blue-state governors to approve natural gas pipelines. Even if the poor could afford a PEV, range and performance limitations turn a long commute from an affordable, outlying community into a battery-charging budget buster.

There’s a lot of innovation and soul-searching to do before we can honestly call PEVs a “green” investment. Environmentally-friendly battery technologies must be developed. The mileage range must improve. And the “green” coalition must accept that zero-emissions nuclear power is the best choice to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Until then, it’s just a costly dream.

Dr. Donald van der Vaart is a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Advisory Board, and serves on the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission. He is a former secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.