Is widespread EV use really bad for the climate?

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Experts are questioning a new paper from a conservative group that argues widespread electric vehicle adoption could have negative consequences for the planet.

The debate comes as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office with plans to combat climate change by boosting electric car deployment nationwide.

At issue is a paper released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank whose scholars have said concern about global warming is overblown.

The paper was written by Ben Lieberman, a senior fellow at CEI who previously worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation and served as a senior counsel on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Lieberman argues that if more Americans replaced their gas-powered cars with electric vehicles, the country would see a host of “environmental disadvantages,” such as increased emissions from manufacturing EVs and mining minerals used in EV batteries.

But experts are pushing back on the paper’s conclusions, pointing to evidence that EVs are much cleaner than their gas-powered counterparts. They also note that CEI has received significant funding from the fossil fuel industry.

David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the paper fails to acknowledge a recent analysis by the environmental and public health group, which found that the average EV produces less carbon emissions than the average gas-powered car in all 50 states.

“You do have higher emissions from making an EV than from making a traditional gasoline car,” he said. “But the important thing is that you quickly make up that debt while using the car. And at the end of their lifetime, there is a large saving of emissions.”

In a phone interview, Lieberman did not dispute the findings by UCS, although he urged the environmental group to further study the higher emissions from manufacturing EVs.

“I do think there is a carbon debt, and we need to be realistic about that when we fashion a policy,” he said.

Ben Jervey, a senior fellow at DeSmog, which seeks to debunk false information about climate change, said the paper seemed influenced by CEI’s funding.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, CEI does not disclose its donors. But records compiled by DeSmog show the group has received significant funding from the fossil fuel industry, including at least $2.1 million from Exxon Mobil Corp. A program for a recent CEI gala obtained by The New York Times also listed American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers as a sponsor.

“It’s obvious from published records that the oil industry and oil refiners provide a huge share of CEI’s revenue,” Jervey said. “It would stand to reason that they would publish a report that deceives the public on electric vehicles, which represent the single greatest threat to oil refiners.”

Asked to respond to this criticism, Lieberman said, “We have a policy of keeping our donors confidential, so I can’t really respond to that. But I don’t pay very much attention to that when I choose what to write about and what to say.”

The paper comes as Biden prepares to enter the White House with aggressive plans to tackle climate change, despite two potential roadblocks to action: Republican control of the Senate and misinformation campaigns by groups tied to the fossil fuel industry.

David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a pro-renewable energy watchdog group, said CEI appears to be shifting its rhetoric in the lead-up to the Biden administration.

“CEI and some of these other climate deniers seem to have gotten the message that it’s not particularly expedient to keep banging the drum that climate change isn’t real and isn’t a problem,” Pomerantz said. “So they’re now saying it is a problem and EVs can’t solve it, which is sort of a tell of what their actual agenda is, which is protecting the industries that fund their organization.”

CEI recently filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit asserting that President Trump should have weakened clean car standards even further (Climatewire, April 30).

Lieberman said his ultimate goal was to inform debates about future policies that could accelerate EV adoption, such as more stringent clean car standards.

“Whatever the policy is that’s going to be debated,” Lieberman said, “let’s have as open and as forthcoming a discussion of the environmental impacts as possible.”