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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Is the extraction of lithium for lithium ion batteries really worse for the environment than fracking? -- Mitch Newhouse, Oak Park, IL
 
In a world of modern technology, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are hard to escape; they’re in cell phones, laptops, and basically anything else with rechargeable batteries. In fact, the demand for Li-ion batteries rose from zero percent market share in 1991 to 80 percent in 2007, and the European Commission expects the tonnage of lithium used in batteries to double between 2010 and 2020. With no viable alternatives anywhere near mainstream production, Li-ion batteries look like they’re here to stay for a while.

But thanks to some misinformation on the Internet, lithium extraction has gotten a bad rap. As Mark Sumner points out on Daily Kos, a pair of photos released by the community group Saskatchewan Proud shows a badly scarred and stripped mine site on the top along with the text “This is a mine where lithium is extracted for electric car batteries.” On the bottom is a photo of a neat and orderly fracking drill site surrounded by vibrant-looking green forest and lakes with the text “This is an oil sands site in Alberta...Tell me more about how your electric car is better for the environment.”

But Sumner points out that the top image in fact depicts one of the world’s10 largest copper mines (BHP’s Escondida Mine in Chile) and has nothing to do with lithium extraction. Lithium extraction does take an environmental toll, from the process of pumping briny groundwater containing lithium carbonate out of the ground and leaving it in pools so the excess water can evaporate. But the main environmental consequence of this is large amounts of water used to bind to the lithium to facilitate extraction.

“There’s nothing you would think of as mining,” reports Sumner. “No blasting. No trucks driving around carrying loads of crushed rock. No sprays of sulfuric acid.”

While it’s true that chemicals are used to refine lithium after it is collected, potential dangers pale compared to those from fracking, which involves pumping harsh chemicals underground to break up shale layers to free natural gas, which can lead to groundwater pollution and even cause minor earthquakes.

Currently Li-ion batteries’ biggest problem may be their tendency to combust—remember the recall of 500,000 hoverboards and then the infamous early version of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7? The ions inside Li-ion batteries can react if the wall between them is compromised, generating enough heat to potentially catch fire. Manufacturers have mitigated such issues in most applications, but the problem can still rear its ugly head when improperly discarded Li-ion batteries are exposed to pressure and heat in a landfill or recycling facility that can stimulate combustion. This is why it’s so important to properly dispose of Li-ion batteries (or products containing them) at hazardous waste or battery recycling locations.

Of course, alternatives to Li-ion batteries do exist with huge potential, but none are economical enough to produce yet to be anywhere near ready for mass production. Some of the most promising include batteries made from sodium-nickel chloride, silver zinc or aluminum graphite. But the expense of the raw materials and the immaturity of the production processes will keep these emerging battery technologies on the drawing board for years to come while lithium ion continues to dominate the market.

CONTACTS: Saskatchewan Proud, https://www.facebook.com/SaskatchewanProud/; Daily Kos, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/5/6/1524012/-Someone-is-lying-about-electric-cars-on-the-internet.


Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that fuel cell cars are finally available for mainstream drivers in the U.S.? -- Jack Mixson, Wilmington, DE

For years, green car enthusiasts have been heralding the dawn of a new era of pollution-free driving powered by fuel cells, which combine readily available hydrogen with oxygen to fire up the engine. NASA created the first commercial grade fuel cells in the 1960s to power satellites and space capsules, and automakers have been talking up their potential for use in cars and trucks ever since.

But the idea has never gotten beyond the prototype stage, due mostly to the lack of any refueling infrastructure. After all, drivers are used to being able to refill their tanks on almost every corner, while the new generation of electric and plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs) can be recharged from any electrical outlet.

But FCVs (fuel cell vehicles) may still represent the holy grail of auto travel because they combine the environmental benefits of electric vehicles (no reliance on fossil fuels and no pollution) with the driving range (~300 miles between refueling) of conventional cars. While GM, Hyundai and Daimler are heavily invested in fuel cell vehicle production, Toyota and Honda are already offering fuel cell vehicles for sale or lease to drivers in California, given the Golden State’s head start in creating a hydrogen refueling network. According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, 27 hydrogen refueling stations are already up and running around metro Los Angeles and the Bay Area, with 33 more coming online soon.

Toyota’s Mirai FCV seats four and offers all the trimmings of any new car—touch-screen entertainment, dual climate control, steering wheel mounted controls, radar to prevent accidents and help with parking, and a 312 mile range per fill-up. The MSRP on the Mirai is $57,500, but Toyota is currently offering $7,500 back. Another option is a 36-month lease on the Mirai for $349/month plus $2,499 up front.

Meanwhile, Honda’s new Clarity FCV is similarly appointed but offers a roomier interior (seating for five) and a longer range (366 miles per fill-up). Californians can lease the Clarity (it’s not for sale in the U.S.) for $369/month for 36 months plus $2,868 due at signing, with Honda covering the first $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel.

Drivers behind the wheel of the Mirai or Clarity qualify for a one-time $5,000 tax rebate from California for driving a green car, not to mention access to HOV lanes statewide even with just a single occupant. 

Of course, fuel cell drivers won’t want to leave California just yet. Outside of the Golden State, there are exactly three publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations (Massachusetts, Connecticut and South Carolina each have one). But later this year Toyota, in partnership with France’s Air Liquide, will start to roll-out a new network of hydrogen refueling stations around the northeastern U.S. so drivers there can start to enjoy the benefits of driving the latest, greatest and greenest technology ever to grace the American road.

CONTACTS: California Fuel Cell Partnership Stations Map, cafcp.org/stationmap; Honda Clarity, automobiles.honda.com/clarity; Toyota Mirai, toyota.com/mirai.


Dear EarthTalk: I understand that the Trump administration has been busy pulling information about climate change and other environmental issues off of the EPA’s website. What kinds of information and data are no longer accessible? -- Jim Harris, Norwalk, CA

It’s no surprise that the Trump administration is looking to change course when it comes to federal action to mitigate climate change, but analysts have been surprised how quickly and drastically the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has “updated” its website to reflect the outlook of its new leader. The information purge began within just two weeks of Donald Trump taking office.

Researchers from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), a group of scientists tracking federal environmental and energy websites and data, first noticed changes on January 22 when a page formerly called “Federal Partner Collaboration” was updated with new content and renamed “EPA Adaptation Collaboration.” A few days later, the EPA changed the content of both its “climate and water” page to reflect the new administration’s interest in freeing up real estate developers from onerous restrictions, and its “international cooperation” page pledging to stand with other countries’ in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, these early changes were made three weeks prior to the confirmation of notorious climate change denier Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator.

The next big round of changes came almost two months later on the eve of the People’s Climate March in Washington DC when the EPA removed several sub-pages under its climate section containing detailed climate data. This had originally been published during Obama’s tenure to help the public understand the magnitude of the global warming threat and to provide researchers with information to put into their models to predict how climate change will affect the environment and human health.

According to The Washington Post, one of the recently removed sections challenged statements made by Scott Pruitt, while another provided detailed information on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (a new rule which the Trump administration is working to “undo”).

Another removed section, “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change,” featured some 50 pages of content tailored to students studying environment and climate, leaving thousands of teachers who had incorporated the data into curricula high and dry for the rest of the school year. (Luckily for teachers, the city of Chicago has republished an archived version of this section on its own website.)

“At a time when Americans are increasingly experiencing climate impacts in their daily lives, the administration has seemingly buried its head in the sand,” says Astrid Caldas, climate scientist at the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “The facts about climate change have not changed, however, and politics are not a valid reason to archive basic explanations of science.”

For its part, the EPA dismisses the critique as partisan quibbling. “As EPA renews its commitment to human health and clean air, land, and water, our website needs to reflect the views of the leadership of the agency,” says agency spokesman J.P. Freire. “We want to eliminate confusion by removing outdated language first and making room to discuss how we’re protecting the environment and human health by partnering with states and working within the law.”

CONTACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov; EDGI, www.envirodatagov.org; Chicago’s EPA Climate Change Archive, www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/sites/climatechange/home.html; UCS, www.ucsusa.org.


Dear EarthTalk: I heard that the Pope urged President Trump to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate accord. Since when has the Catholic church been involved in environmental politics?
  -- Janine Morse, Rome, NY

Concern for the health and well-being of the planet has always been part of the biblical tradition. “Sacred Scripture calls believers to care for God’s creation and all of God’s children,” reports the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), an assembly of church leaders from across the country. “God calls us as His stewards to care for the garden He created.”
 
Examples abound through the centuries of influential Catholics taking conservation seriously, from St. Francis’ 1225 canticle dedicated to praising the Lord through stewardship of  “Sister Mother Earth / who sustains and governs us” to Pope Paul VI’s 1971 call for Catholics to take up the mantle of environmental protection as a key social imperative to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2001 “pastoral statement.” That implored Catholics around the world to do their part in reining in greenhouse gas emissions for “the future of God's creation and the one human family.”
 
More recently, Pope Francis has prioritized climate as a key social concern of the Catholic church. His 2015 “encyclical”—an important papal letter that gets distributed to Catholic congregations around the world—called for urgent, drastic fossil fuel emissions cuts to stave off climate change. 
 
“As a chemist by background and with a team of scientists and an observatory at the Vatican, the Pope is clear that climate change is the greatest threat life our Earth has ever seen—and that it is caused by humans,” reports Earth Ministry, a non-profit dedicated to engaging the faith community in environmental stewardship and advocacy. “And as a priest, he stands in protection and care for his flock, 1.2 billion Catholics world-wide, and for all God’s children, especially the poorest.” 
 
An important part of the battle against global warming for Francis is the relationship between global poverty and environmental destruction: When people don’t have the resources to sustain themselves they are far less likely to be good stewards of the planet, and in turn may suffer the most from a quickly warming climate.
 
And unlike some of his predecessors, Pope Francis isn’t afraid to mix it up with politicians. He bestowed a copy of the 2015 encyclical upon a visiting President Trump earlier this month—just before Trump’s self-imposed deadline to decide whether or not to keep the United States in the Paris climate accord.
 
Catholicism is hardly the only major religion concerned about climate change. After all, global warming is non-denominational, affecting people all over the world regardless of their religious beliefs. Whether or not a given religion’s national or global leadership is pushing for carbon mitigation, individual congregations can do their part based on the priorities of their memberships. One easy way to get your church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution on the right track is by signing on with the Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) movement that works with congregations to fight global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. IPL also helps lobby policymakers to advance clean energy initiatives at local, state and national levels.
 
CONTACTS: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.usccb.org; 2015 Papal Encyclical “Laudato Si,” www.laudatosi.com; Earth Ministry, www.earthministry.org; Interfaith Power & Light, www.interfaithpowerandlight.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate visit WWW.EARTHTALK.ORG. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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