FACT CHECK: Do These Images Show The Differences Between The Environmental Impact Of Lithium Mining And Oil Sands Extraction?
An image shared on Facebook allegedly depicts the differences in environmental impact between an open-air mine where lithium is extracted for electric car batteries and an oil sands extraction site.
The bottom photo correctly identifies an oil sands facility in Alberta, Canada; the one above it actually shows the world’s largest copper mine. Both lithium mining and oil sands extraction harm the environment but their processes are too different for an apples-to-apples comparison.
This Facebook post contrasts the picture of a large open-air lithium mine with one of a small oil sands extraction site, suggesting that mining for the lithium used in some electric car batteries harms the environment more than extracting fossil fuels.
“This is a mine where lithium is extracted for electric car batteries,” reads the caption. “This is an oilsands (sic) site in Alberta. Tell me more about how your electric car is better for the environment.” (RELATED: Did Ocasio-Cortez Tweet About Electric Cars During Hurricane Dorian?)
A reverse image search revealed that the top photograph does not depict a lithium mining operation but rather the world’s largest copper mine. Located in Chile, the Escondida mine produced more than 1.2 million tons of copper last year, according to Mining Journal.
Though some lithium comes from ore mining, the more common production method is extracting it from brine reservoirs beneath salt flats, according to a 2018 study. That process entails pumping salt-rich water to the surface into evaporation ponds, where it undergoes solar evaporation over an extended period, and removing all metals other than lithium.
Unlike the top picture in the Facebook post, the second one does, in fact, show what it claims: an oil sands extraction rig that’s part of MEG Energy‘s Christina Lake in-situ oil sands operation in Alberta. (In-situ extraction occurs when the bitumen deposits are too deep in the earth to access via surface mining.)
The Christina Lake site uses a technique called steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) to recover bitumen. SAGD, the primary method of extraction in such extraction sites, uses steam continuously pumped through underground wells to bring fluid bitumen to the surface.
“Oilsands (sic) production via SAGD has little surface impact compared to mining,” Steven Bryant, a professor in the University of Calgary’s chemical and petroleum engineering department, told the Daily Caller in an email.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t negatively impact the environment. A joint study by the Pembina Institute and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society argues that it can be more damaging than surfacing mining, in terms of deforestation and the resulting wildlife loss.
An “apples-to-apples” comparison of environmental impact would, according to Stevens, not weigh the negative effects of lithium mining against in-situ oil sands extraction. Instead, it would look at lithium mining and oil sands mining, which effect the land equally, Nexant’s Energy and Chemicals Advisory analyst Daniel Saxton told the Caller in an email.
“Production of the energy material is, however, only one part of the overall environmental impact,” said Bryant in an email to the Caller. “The use or consumption of the material also contributes, as does its mode of distribution.”
“A full accounting would also consider the [greenhouse gas] emissions associated with electric vehicle production and operation – especially the fuel used to produce the electricity – vs the GHG emissions associated with oil production and consumption in internal combustion engines,” Bryant added.