Are Lithium Batteries as Bad as Oil? Spoiler, No.

March 15, 2022

Lithium does not stick to feathers.

Global coal production about 8 billion tons annually. Global Lithium production about 80,000 tons.
We literally are mining 100,000 times more coal than lithium, forgetting all the mountain tops and overburden that has to be stripped and blasted to get it.

Then add in all the oil drilling, fracking, etc.
Even if Lithium extraction goes up by 30 or 40x, which are the estimates I’ve seen, it’s orders of magnitude lower.

And Lithium can be recycled…..

Energy wonk Christian Roselund on Twitter:

There’s been a line that’s been going around the internet lately, it is various shades of “Lithium ion batteries require mining. Doesn’t that mean they are as bad as oil?”

The answer is: No. It doesn’t. 

Internet trolls make this association in a crude form. But I also sometimes hear a more refined version of this false equivalency from knowledgeable people. I find the latter puzzling, but since it’s out there I’ll go into why downsides of lithium-ion & oil are not comparable.  

First: climate. One of these things is a main contributor to the #climatecrisis-through the extraction, transport, and use (mostly burning) of petroleum in various forms.

Lithium ion has to be mined. That’s the problem. Even end of life disposal just isn’t that big a deal. (I’ll add, in fact, Lithium recycling is a growth industry)

But mining is also bad/damaging! I hear you say. Yes, mining is pretty bad.

This was the Deepwater Horizon oil “spill.” I was in New Orleans when it happened, with my pregnant ex. 210 *million* gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. 

To hide the problem (not fix it), BP dumped 2 million gallons on a dispersant called “Corexit” on the spill and sprayed it over coastal communities.

National Institute of Health links some of the chemicals in Corexit w/ cancer & birth defects. 

I could go on and on about how Deepwater Horizon devastated coastal communities and Louisiana’s fishing industry, the many tragic health outcomes of those who participated in the “Vessel of Opportunity” program, and so on.

But Deepwater Horizon was just one oil spill of many. 

We could also talk about what oil companies like Shell have done in nations like Nigeria. 

But back to the arguments here. People also claim that just like oil, lithium-ion batteries make us dependent on regimes we don’t like.

But there’s a big difference. Oil is located mostly in a few specific places. Clean energy minerals are all over.

Per @IEA, for for batteries we we need copper, lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt & graphite. For solar & wind, add chromium, molydbenum, zinc, silicon & some rare earths. 

I’ll add platinum and iridium for electrolyzers.  

Some of these are more concentrated than others; there are large reserves of lithium in Australia and the United States as well as Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and yes, China.

Copper reserves are also highly distributed.

But what about our dependence on China?

China controls much of the *processing* of lithium-ion battery minerals, because the nation made it a priority to do so.

Which was smart. If we want to not be dependent on China, we need to build mineral processing plants. 

This is very different from access to oil. In an oil economy, if you don’t have oil, you are dependent on nations that do.

In a clean energy economy, if you want to control your supply chain, you build plants.

Which the Biden Admin is doing. 

3 Responses to “Are Lithium Batteries as Bad as Oil? Spoiler, No.”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Manchin just described the US as incapable of manufacturing innovation.

  2. redskylite Says:

    From Mongabay (15 March 2022 )

    “Climate-positive, high-tech metals are polluting Earth, but solutions await

    The reliance on TCEs to make high-tech green products puts these elements at risk of contributing to the breach of the nine planetary boundaries that demarcate habitable conditions on Earth.


    Lithium batteries may also be suitable for dedicated recycling, though the technology doesn’t yet exist. Future demand for lithium-ion batteries is predicted to outpace global production, even as the first generation of fully electric vehicles reaches the end of their battery lifespan. Pressure is mounting, therefore, to “mine” those dead batteries rather than send them to landfills. In 2017, NGOs and private companies formed the Global Battery Alliance, aiming for a sustainable battery value chain by 2030. Major EU grants are currently focused on developing lithium-ion recycling technologies.”

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    I saw a guy digging a hole in his yard the other day. So apparently begonias are as bad as coal, too.


    David Roberts has written a couple of informative pieces recently on minerals at wherever the hell he is now.

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