Climate change, it seems, is a massive asteroid hurling towards us, threatening the human species with intense suffering and, some say, civilizational collapse, if not near extinction. Developed nations—which are responsible for most global carbon emissions—are racing for solutions. In particular, we are racing to substitute one energy-generating technology (combustion) and the natural resources on which it depends for others, while ignoring ecological and social consequences.
Take our approach to decarbonizing the transportation sector. Developed nations have decided that instead of driving fewer vehicles, we will drive electric vehicles, or EVs. Instead of rapidly expanding public transit systems and revamping city planning to promote walkability, we will substitute internal combustion engines—which rely on gasoline—for electric batteries—which rely on metal.
This decision has triggered a historic expansion of the mining and refining industry, the consequences of which have already been devastating to frontline communities.
The Mining Implications of Battery-Powered Vehicles
EVs have no fuel tanks. Instead, they have very large batteries. By way of comparison, the 12-volt battery used in a typical internal-combustion car weighs about 40 pounds. A typical electric car battery weighs over 1,000 pounds, while the batteries required to power electric buses and trucks can weigh up to three tons. All this weight—which will more rapidly wear down our roads and result in more fatal traffic accidents—comes from metal that must be mined and refined.
According to global mining financier Robert Friedland, “to transition just the world’s passenger cars to electric, we have to mine more materials in the next 30 years than we mined throughout human history.” Logically, then, as the EV revolution has geared up, so too has the mining and refining industry. Around the globe, mining companies are scaling up existing mines, reopening decommissioned mines, and building new ones.
EV-Mining’s Impact Worldwide
Ruinous to land, water, wildlife, individuals, and communities—and immensely profitable to mine owners and state actors—mining is “the archetype of extractivism” and a “one of the most destructive industries in the world.”
Take nickel, a key component of EV batteries as it increases energy storage and mileage per charge. In 2020, predicting a state-sponsored surge in the US EV market, Telsa’s CEO and owner, Elon Musk, urged the mining world, “Please mine more nickel.”
Nickel mines are the traditional open-pit kind. They generate overburden (massive piles of dislodged and discarded earth) and toxic tailings (the mounds of sludge that remain after desired metals have been physically or chemically separated from the unprofitable part of an ore). So much earth moving changes a land’s topography, causing floods, landslides, and avalanches that sweep through nearby communities. Invariably, rains carry overburden into streams, causing sedimentation. Dams and ponds built to contain tailings invariably leak and break, releasing pollution into surface and groundwater, while waste is often dumped directly into the nearest body of water.
As habitats and ecosystems are polluted and destroyed, nearby communities invariably fall ill, and they lose their sources of sustenance and livelihood.
Indonesia is home to one of the world’s largest nickel reserves, tied with Australia. The country has long exported unrefined nickel for use in stainless steel production—with disastrous environmental and social costs. In 2014, in an effort to attract investment in the country’s nickel-refining infrastructure—enabling Indonesia to sell more profitable high-grade nickel to manufacturers—the government banned unrefined-nickel exports. After receiving pushback from the European Union and manufacturers, the government softened the ban. However, in 2020, Indonesia’s president once again banned all unrefined-nickel exports in order to sell EV battery-grade nickel to a growing EV-manufacturing industry.
Indonesia’s nickel-rich region now hosts two massive industrial nickel plants. In addition to thousands of acres of pit mines, each plant contains refineries, including high-pressure acid-leaching facilities, almost a dozen smelters, and coal power plants to fuel their operations.
The plants have triggered land grabbing, displacing Indigenous people through quasi- and extra-legal means, including misinformation and violence. Rainforests have been stripped from thousands of hectares. Landslides are now common. Pollution steadily leaches into the rivers from which local—now frontline—communities drink.
Toxic tailings have stained white beaches red and muddied the ocean. The mines’ coal power plants regularly release boiling water into the bays and lagoons, killing fish. The fish have retreated from their traditional feeding grounds. No longer able to live off the ocean, men have gone to work in the mines, where deadly accidents are common.
Coal plants and smelters spew ash at all hours. What is not inhaled settles as soot, coating homes, clothes, bodies, plants, and soil. Residents are often sick, their eyes irritated, their lungs inflamed and infected. Women must care for their ailing children as best as they can as they deal with their own respiratory infections. They pray for an opportunity to leave with their families. They say their lands are “dying.”
Meanwhile, communities in South America’s arid “lithium triangle” are being “sacrificed” to mine lithium, the EV revolution’s base metal. Mines there rely on a water-intensive brining process that, according to a Friends of the Earth report, “consumes, contaminates, and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities,” causing illness and disrupting local agricultural and grazing economies.
Lithium mining is also threatening Native ancestral lands in Northern Nevada, where in 2021 workers broke ground on Lithium Americas. Constructed on leased federal lands, Lithium Americas is the first new large-scale lithium mine in the US in more than a decade. The Biden administration hopes it will address the US EV industry’s near total reliance on foreign lithium sources.
As the New York Times reports, “Lithium Americas has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because in addition to dispossessing Native people of over 6000 square acres of ancestral land, “it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious groundwater, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.” Thanks to a $600-million investment from GM, which pledged to phase out internal-combustion vehicle manufacturing by 2035, Lithium Americas is expected to begin operations in 2026.
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The mining of cobalt—another key EV-battery component—is threatening to expand the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s cobalt mining industry, an “ecological and sanitary disaster” infamous for land grabbing, pollution, and exploitative, unsafe working conditions, including child enslavement. EV manufacturers are investing in new nickel mines in Tanzania to tap “one of the largest and richest undeveloped nickel sulfide deposits known at present.” Copper mining required to sustain the EV revolution is threatening Indigenous lands in Arizona and Alaska.
The list of EV mines goes on. Each is a sacrifice zone. Each has a frontline community.
Until it began receiving tax dollars, the automobile industry had no interest in transitioning to EVs. Sales of internal-combustion vehicles were steady, and the industry’s earlier attempts at generating EV consumer interest in developed nations had failed.
EV manufacturing took off first in China in the early 2010s, when the government began building charging stations and subsidizing EV production and purchases. Beginning in 2019, the European Union began “Subsidizing Its Way Into Electric Vehicle Leadership,” likewise boosting EV production and sales, followed most recently by the United States, whose current president has embraced the EV revolution.
In addition to encouraging more mining of Canadian and US federal lands, the Biden Administration has earmarked billions of federal tax dollars for EV development. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act directed more than $1 trillion in subsidies and incentives toward what it called “clean” energy production, including $20-billion to upgrade the nation’s power grids so that, among other things, they can charge hundreds of thousands of EVs at once. The legislation directed billions more to build EV power stations and subsidize US-based EV and EV-battery manufacturing. Forbes estimates that, from 2023 to 2032, the total value of these manufacturing credits could be as high as $190 billion. As Forbes writes, “These subsidizes can be monetized so that a producer is eligible for a direct payment from the Treasury.”
In response, the US automobile industry has changed its tune, making promises to phase out internal-combustion car manufacturing and invest in US-based EV-manufacturing facilities and in new mines around the globe.
Instead of demanding that the owners of these new EV plants pay their fair share of taxes—and using these new taxes to build out their public transit systems—states and municipalities have entered into “a megadeal spending spree like no other [in] U.S. history,” awarding more than $13.8 billion in tax abatements to at least 51 EV and EV battery factories in recent years. As usual, most state and local governments have not disclosed information about these abatements to the public.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has announced a single $4.7-billion investment in the nation’s public transit systems, a drop in the tax-revenue budget and a far cry from the $60 billion that the National Campaign for Transit Justice estimates US public transit systems need each year to “promote equity, access and environmental sustainability.” A chunk of this investment will go, not to expanding public transit systems, but to transitioning their bus fleets to electric.
Listening to Frontline Communities
The US Left—those of us who care about health and equity and are demanding a clean, just transition—does not appear particularly bothered by these funding priorities. To the contrary, we are cheering the EV revolution on, nodding to the importance of public transit while driving by in our personal vehicles.
Like most everyone in the US—except Native communities—we appear to have embraced technological fundamentalism, believing, despite evidence to the contrary, that more and better technology “is always a good thing” and that “any problems caused by technology’s unintended consequences can be remedied by more technology.” We read on our phones that we can recycle our way out of EV’s extractive problem, or that we can replace nickel with iron and cobalt with manganese—and we breathe a sigh of relief. We forget that to recycle hundreds of millions of EV batteries each year, we must first make them. We forget that there is no such thing as a clean mine.
And we turn away from EV frontline communities, contradicting all that we say we wish to do. Our self-declared role—the role of the Left, of social justice movements—is to turn toward these communities.
They are telling us, “Electric vehicles are a false solution to climate change.” They are organizing—filing law suits, setting up protest camps, blocking roads, marching, and forming international alliances—to keep new mines at bay and close mines in operation. They are asking EV proponents, “What sacrifice are you making?”
They are saying, in short, that EVs are neither clean nor just—that the substitution of one energy-producing technology for another will not save us from climate change—not in a clean, just way—for each substitution requires another round of extraction. They are telling us that there is only one clean, just way to reduce our transportation emissions: dramatically reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
We—the Left—must imagine and enact our climate transition accordingly.
(Readers interested in public transit activism may appreciate Transportation for America’s “Fight For Your Ride: An advocate’s guide for improving & expanding transit,” which offers practical and tactical advice for organizing to improve public transit systems.)