The dirty secret behind your ‘green’ electric carArchived Message
Posted by Gerard on September 7, 2020, 9:26 am
"As Tesla shares continued their stellar rise last month, a group representing indigenous communities in Russia sent a letter to Elon Musk.
“We are respectfully requesting that you DO NOT BUY nickel, copper and other products from the Russian mining company Nornickel,” they told the billionaire boss of the electric carmaker.
Citing the huge diesel spill from a Nornickel plant that turned Siberian rivers crimson this summer, they alleged that the world’s leading high-grade nickel producer was “a global leader in environmental pollution” and urged Tesla to rule out buying from the miner until it cleaned up its act.
The letter came in response to a striking plea that Mr Musk had made to mining companies weeks earlier. “Wherever you are in the world, please mine more nickel,” he said. “Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way.”
While concerns over child labour and corruption in mining cobalt for electric vehicle batteries are well-documented, Mr Musk’s comments have focused attention on the less-scrutinised market for nickel. The metal is every bit as critical for batteries — and presents its own concerns for ethically minded electric vehicle buyers.
Nickel is used in most lithium-ion batteries; it helps to provide higher energy density and to improve storage capacity. Today, batteries account for only about 7 per cent, or 150,000 tonnes a year, of global nickel demand, according to Wood Mackenzie; most nickel is still used to make stainless steel. However, the energy and mining consultancy expects battery demand to increase to 650,000 tonnes by 2030, helping to drive total nickel demand to 3.2 million tonnes a year, from 2.3 million tonnes at present.
Andrew Mitchell, head of nickel research at Wood Mackenzie, argues that the market is in fact oversupplied now and he does not “see a particular squeeze on the availability of materials” to meet growing demand. However, “if you then start to want to look at the ESG [ethical, social and governance] issues around your nickel, then that might start to pose you problems”.
Nornickel’s diesel spill and other incidents are far from the only concern. One of the biggest producers of battery-suitable nickel is the Chinese-owned Ramu project in Papua New Guinea. Ramu hit the headlines last year over a pipeline leak that caused a huge spill of toxic slurry into a bay, but even its normal operations are controversial. The nickel deposit here is of a different type to that in Russia and turning it into a product suitable for batteries requires a process called high-pressure acid leaching.
“In the leaching process, you generate on average 1.5 tonnes of waste for every tonne of ore you process,” Mr Mitchell said. In Ramu, that waste is disposed of deep at sea, a process opposed by environmental groups, which claim that it remains toxic. But there is no easy alternative. “Storing that material on land in a seismically active and high rainfall area is probably risky,” he said.
Much of the forecast growth in nickel production over the next decade is expected to come from projects in Indonesia, already the world’s biggest producer, that will use the same process, which critics fear will harm coral and aquatic life.
“There are projects in Indonesia that will be adopting this high-pressure acid leaching technique and they will be adopting it specifically for the [electric vehicle] market,” said Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello, who runs the Making Clean Energy Clean campaign for Earthworks, an environmental group. “The electric vehicle sector is driving demand for nickel, which is driving this processing technique, which is very, very, very damaging.”
Yet, according to Anton Berlin, marketing director at Nornickel, if these Indonesian leaching projects don’t proceed, “there is a risk of a shortage of nickel for the battery industry”, because prices at present are too low to encourage the building of new mines elsewhere.
Mr Musk urged mining companies not to wait for prices to rise before investing in more nickel. Mr Berlin said that the Tesla chief’s comments were “a bit naive, or provocative. If you expect the production to be extremely cost-efficient and at the same time you want it to be sustainable and environmentally friendly, those are two opposites. There’s always a cost in environmental protection, in social responsibility. It doesn’t come for free.”
He said that Nornickel could increase its production of battery-grade nickel in Russia substantially, but doing so would depend on it first securing long-term contracts with customers.
As for Nornickel’s own environmental record, Andrey Bougrov, head of environmental protection at the miner — which is facing a $2 billion fine over the diesel spill — said that the clean-up campaign was “in full swing”. He insisted that the company was “committed to environmentally sensitive production of metals”, was investing large sums in reducing hazardous emissions, but was “dealing with factories built in the Soviet times when architects largely ignored environmental aspects of the production”.