Misinformation at its finest

Never doubt the power of misinformation fed to an unknowing public.

So, you might have seen this image going around Facebook, trying to convince you that the raw materials needed in making an electric car — specifically, lithium — are far more impactful on the environment than the Alberta oil sands, which have gotten a bad rap in the press and amongst liberal government circles.

There's just one problem: these photos and the message the comparison is trying to send are complete and utter bullshit, and fully deserve to be called out as such.

First, let's talk about what's actually in that photo. Up top, which is labeled as "a mine where lithium is extracted for car batteries" is actually the Escondida Minera copper mine in Chile. Below that is what is labeled a "an oilsands [sic] site in Alberta" — and is actually a very creative cropping of a hydraulic fracturing oil well in Saskatchewan. Neither of these are accurate representations of the process of extracting lithium or oil sands.

Oil sands

Let's start with the oil sands. The Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada, are one of the world's largest oil reserves, covering roughly 54,000 square miles of land — or about the size of the state of New York. There's just one problem: this isn't liquid crude oil like is extracted in places like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. Oil sands are a mixture of the usual sand materials — sand, clay, water — and extremely thick oil known as bitumen (lending the deposits their other name: tar sands). The resulting oil deposits are thick enough that they can be drilled through and shoveled by heavy machinery.

There are two primary methods to extract that oil: "in situ extraction" and through surface mining. At the Athabasca oil sands roughly 1/5 of the deposits are accessible via surface mining, the rest are extracted via in situ — parallel horizontal wells are drilled and steam is injected through the upper well to melt the bitumen for collection through the lower well, or through the injection of solvents through the well to dilute the bitumen and make it easier to pump out. Both methods seem as if they are generally well contained under ground, but still produce enormous quantities of waste upon extraction, not to mention ongoing concerns about leakage into the local water supply.

The far more destructive option is also the easier one: surface mining. With roughly 18 million barrels easily accessible from the surface, huge portions of northern Alberta are being exploited for oil sands surface mining. Over top of that accessible bitumen is pristine forests and bogs, which are stripped away to make way for excavators and enormous mining dump trucks. Extracting the oil from the sands is actually a similar process as in situ extraction, it's just happening in massive surface facilities instead — heat and solvents are applied to the aggregate to loosen up the oil locked inside.

Both methods of extraction are incredibly resource intensive. For each barrel of oil extracted it takes roughly 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas to provide the heat needed to separate the oil, but because a barrel of oil has the potential energy equivalence of 6,000 cubic feet of natural gas, that's considered a net gain. Additionally, the water demands for steam generation are enormous — 2-4.5 cubic meters of water for every cubic meter of crude oil produced. The operations at Athabasca as licensed to divert 359 million cubic meters of water from the Athabasca River every year — more than twice what the city of Calgary needs on an annual basis.

Making matters worse, the water used in extraction is incredibly polluted and cannot be returned to the ecosystem without expensive filtering and treatment. So instead the oil companies take their used water and store it in enormous artificial tailing ponds. The ponds contain have frequently leaked into the river over the past several decades, introducing water contaminated with arsenic, lead, mercury, and other metals and toxins into the ecosystem. As of 2013, the province of Alberta reported that tailings ponds covered 30 square miles.

The companies that are strip mining to get to the Athabasca oil sands are required by law to restore the lands they've disturbed, but those efforts are both expensive and time consuming — and dependent on simply moving the toxic byproducts from one location to another.

Lithium

There are two primary methods for extracting lithium. There is a nugget of truth to the Facebook image — there are a few open pit mines where lithium is extracted by heavy machinery. But the vast majority of the world's lithium comes from evaporative extraction in South America, with the half of the known reserves located in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia.

Lithium extraction on the Atacama salt flats in Chile Lithium extraction on the Atacama salt flats in Chile. Source: NBC

Extracting lithium from the salt flats is actually a relatively simple affair: portions of the flats are bounded into ponds, which are flooded to to create a lithium-rich brine. And then they simply wait for the water to evaporate and then remove the newly-surface lithium from the surface. The extraction process does require large amounts of water and often takes several months from start to finish, but it is taking place in an area with very little flora or fauna, and post-extraction restoration of the salt flats is a relatively simple affair.

Bolivia is not alone in expanding lithium production from salt flats. China has tapped their own salt flats to produce lithium, but their 1.1 million tons of extractable lithium pales in comparison to the 5.5 million accessible tons in Bolivia. So rich is the Salar de Uyuni that nations like China are competing with companies like Tesla to secure rights to extract that lithium.

So why the lies?

The big question remaining is why anybody would be perpetrating falsehoods like this. It's doubtful that the oil companies are explicitly behind this, though they've long claimed that electric vehicles and their lithium batteries are nowhere near as environmentally friendly as they appear. And there is some truth to that — it takes energy and creates pollution to secure the raw materials and build lithium ion batteries and the vast majority of the electricity produced worldwide that goes into electric cars does come from fossil fuel sources. But even with those environmental costs factored in, an electric car like a Tesla Model S still is roughly one-third as polluting as a gasoline- or diesel-powered car.

Most don't know what oil sands production or lithium extraction looks like, and are thus ripe for galvanizing with misinformation.

We totally get if you prefer driving a gasoline-powered car. There's something visceral about the growl and roar of an gas engine, and that's just something an electric car cannot reproduce (though you could very easily argue that the massive acceleration and instant torque of an electric car are benefits all their own). And gas cars typically have notably longer range and far faster refueling times than electric cars. That's all before we even get to the cost — though the Tesla Model 3 will bring prices down to a more reasonable level, an electric car with more than 200 miles range today will cost you well over $70,000.

But for all of the merits and valid points in the electric vs. internal combustion debate, there's no reason to go about spreading potent misinformation. Most people don't know what oil sands production looks like, but when they've only heard that it's nasty and are presented with a photo that says the opposite, their barely-formed opinion may solidify, or even switch. Especially when that's countered with an image of the alternative (lithium batteries) that runs entirely contrary to the environmentally friendly image that electric cars are supposed to have.

You can hate that electric cars are expensive and that they have to potential to dramatically impact jobs in the oil industry. You can hate that gas-powered cars put pollution into the air with every mile driven and that oil sands mining is brutally destructive. But regardless of your position, spreading lies and misinformation won't help advance the debate in any meaningful manner.