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EV Batteries VS Petrol - we look at the hard questions.

Originally published 9 October 2017.

Asking the question " Which does the least environmental damage – mining/and producing lithium batteries for electric vehicles or drilling and fracking to produce oil?" is like opening a large can of worms. This question may not actually be possible to answer.  This is because it is very difficult to measure the overall damage done to the environment by producing EV batteries, vs mining for oil in all its various methods. Oil is used once, whereas, the minerals extracted for batteries can be used many times.

Which does the least environmental damage – mining/and producing lithium batteries for electric vehicles or drilling and fracking to produce oil?

Overview : Oil is extracted at great cost, is used once and is burnt - creating toxic gases which are released into the atmosphere. Electric vehicle batteries can be used many times and do not release toxic gases into the atmosphere. Seems simple right? 

A battery pack in an electric vehicle is anticipated to last for 10 – 14 years. At that stage, the pack's capacity will be down to 70% of its original capacity. This pack can then be dismantled and used as energy storage in the home or workplace. This extends the life of the cells out for another 10 years or more. After that, they can be recycled. 



While there are many exciting battery technologies out there, we will focus on lithium-ion batteries as they are expected to make up the clear majority of the total rechargeable battery market for the near future.

Each lithium-ion cell contains three major parts:

1) Anode (natural or synthetic graphite) 2) Electrolyte (lithium salts) 3) Cathode (differing formulations)

While the anode and electrolytes are straightforward as far as lithium-ion technology goes, it is the cathode where most developments are being made. Lithium isn’t the only metal that goes into the cathode – other metals like cobalt, manganese, aluminium, and nickel are also used in different formulations.


LITHIUM: The world produces about 650,000 tons of lithium each year. Lithium exists mostly in the form of concentrated salts. Almost all that lithium — greater than 95 percent of it — is produced through a process of pumping underground brine to the surface and allowing it to evaporate in big pans. It’s separated from the brine using electrolysis.

The primary sources of lithium are from the Atacama Desert in Chile, and the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia. Tesla's new gigafactory is based near the only producing lithium mine in the USA, - Albermale's Silver Peak Mine.

Environmental concerns and recycling

Since Li-ion batteries contain less toxic metals than other types of batteries which may contain lead or cadmium, they are generally categorized as non-hazardous waste. Li-ion battery elements including iron, copper, nickel and cobalt are considered safe for incinerators and for landfills.

These metals can be recycled but mining generally remains cheaper than recycling which is why not much is invested into recycling Li-ion batteries due to the cost, complexities and low yield. 

The most expensive product for producing these batteries is called Cobalt. Which is why Lithium is used. 

Lithium iron phosphate is cheaper but also has its drawbacks. Lithium is less expensive than other metals used, and recycling could prevent a future shortage. Manufacturing a kg of Li-ion battery takes energy equivalent to 1.6 kg of oil.

Lithium, graphite, and cobalt, are all much smaller and less-established markets – and each have supply concerns that remain unanswered:

  • South America : The countries in the “Lithium Triangle” host a whopping 75% of the world’s lithium resources: Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia.

  • China:  65% of flake graphite is mined in China. With poor environmental and labour practices, China’s graphite industry has been under scrutiny – and some mines have even been shut down.

  • Indonesia:  Price swings of nickel can impact battery makers. In 2014, Indonesia banned exports of nickel, which caused the price to soar nearly 50%.

  • DRC:  60% of the world’s cobalt originates in Congo — a chaotic country rife with corruption and a long history of foreign exploitation of its natural resources. Cobalt are normally mined from open cast mines. A typical electric car has about 4.5 – 9 kgs of cobalt in its batteries. Many miners are impoverished workers who work without pneumatic drills or diesel draglines. Child labour is rife in these mines. Cobalt is usually not mined alone, and tends to be produced as a by-product of nickel and copper mining activities.

  • North America:  Yet, companies such as Tesla have stated that they want to source 100% of raw materials sustainably and ethically from North America. The problem? Only nickel sees significant supply come from the continent.

  • Reference: http://www.visualcapitalist.com/critical-ingredients-fuel-battery-boom/


There are different ways of mining & producing oil. For example, Fracking, Oil Platforms and Open Cast etc. 

Fracking  is the process of drilling down into the earth right before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well.

In 2011, energy company Cuadrilla suspended test fracking operations near Blackpool, in Lancashire, after two earthquakes of 1.5 and 2.2 magnitude hit the area. A subsequent study found it was "highly probable" that shale gas test drilling triggered the tremors. Fracking uses huge amounts of water, which must be transported to the fracking site, at significant environmental cost. Environmentalists say potentially carcinogenic chemicals used may escape and contaminate groundwater around the fracking site. The industry suggests pollution incidents are the results of bad practice, rather than an inherently risky technique.


There’s the blasting, the trucks, the crushing, and then a mixture of hot water and caustic lye (sodium hydroxide) is added. It’s all mixed up into a black, sandy paste, then the paste is piped over to a plant where it gets churned until the oil floats to the top. The oil then gets sent down some pipelines, while the remaining muck is dumped. It takes about two tons of sand to make a single barrel of oil.

The main environmental effects of Oil Sands are:

  • Tailings Ponds Impacts : Tailings ponds are settling ponds that contain the waste by-product of oil sands extraction and upgrading. They are a mix of water, sand, silt, clay, unrecovered hydrocarbons, and other contaminants.

  • Climate Impacts : The greenhouse gas emissions for oil sand extraction and processing are significantly larger than for conventional crude oil. These emissions contribute to global warming and the enhanced greenhouse effect.

  • Water Impacts:  The extraction of bitumen from oil sands requires a large amount of water, and thus water use is a concern when looking at oil sands extraction. Water used in the oil sands can be recycled, but only small amounts of this water are returned to the natural cycle.

  • Air Quality Impacts:  Along with greenhouse gases, other pollutants are released into the air during oil sands operations. These pollutants are harmful to the environment and human health, and include gases such as Nitrogen Oxides and Sulfur Oxides.

  • Reclamation: Reclamation is the attempt to return previously used land - whether it is old surface mines, or more frequently tailings ponds - to their natural state. The chemicals in the tailings are factor that can make reclamation difficult.

  • http://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Environmental_impacts_of_oil_sands

Oil sand mine facts, Fort McMurray, Canada


  • Each day 600 million cubic feet of clean natural gas is used to produce oil sands – that’s enough to heat more than three million homes

  • Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil

  • Oil sands mining operations are licensed to divert 349 million m3 of water per year from the Athabasca River – twice the amount of water used by the City of Calgary

  • At least 90% of this water ends up in toxic tailings ponds. Tailings ponds already cover more than 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space

Comments: Lithium, once it is put into a car battery, lasts for as long as the battery and can then be re-used. The battery is a closed unit and none of the metals are lost. Furthermore, they are designed by the likes of Tesla to be recycled at the end of life with all the metals re-used. As opposed to the oil from oil sands, which is destined to be burnt, releasing CO2, going into cars designed to consume oil over their entire life cycle.

Nissan Leaf : The pack contains air-cooled, stacked laminated lithium ion manganese oxide batteries.

The batteries that Tesla has been using, sourced from Panasonic, for its Model S electric car are most likely a lithium-ion battery with a cathode that is a combination of a lithium, nickel, cobalt, aluminium oxide.

The NZ Herald on Thursday Oct 27, 2011 reported that our imports of petroleum (read crude oil) climbed 22% to $7.7 billion in the year.  If it keeps rising by 22% a year, by 2016 the cost of crude oil imports will be $20.81billion which will be approaching what we spend on social security and welfare.

Conventional oil peaked in 2005. Unconventional oil (shale oil, deep sea oil) peaked in March 2015.


New Zealand imports 97% of its oil. The oil shocks of the 1970s reduced imports to New Zealand by about 7%-10% and lasted just a few months. Yet they plunged New Zealand into a deep recession and caused major disruption to our transport networks. -- carless days, lowered speed limits and "think big" energy projects. 



As you can, though this question seems pretty simple, its super hard to answer.