FACT CHECK: Viral Post Spreads Misinformation About Oil Wells And Lithium Mines

Hannah Hudnall | Fact Check Reporter

A post shared on Facebook claims to show images of an oil well and a lithium mine and alleges that lithium mining is significantly worse for the environment than drilling for oil.

Verdict: Misleading

The image featured in the post shows a copper mine, not a lithium mine. Mining experts refuted some of the post’s claims.

Fact Check:

The Facebook post, which has been shared over 110,000 times, claims to show an image of an oil well and another of a lithium mine. “The top is a oil well, where 100% organic material is pumped out of the ground, taking up around 500 to 1000 square feet,” the lengthy post claims. “The bottom is just one of Teslas lithium supply mines where entire mountains are eliminated.”

The post goes on to allege that while oil wells are safe and compact, lithium mining requires the use of hundreds of large vehicles, including “35-40 797 cat haul trucks” that each allegedly use “around half a million gallons of diesel a year.”

“So with a inventory of just 35 the haul trucks alone are using 17.5 million gallons of fuel a year for just one lithium site,” reads the post. “So next time you are driving your electric car thinking you are saving the environment remember that it came at a cost of entire mountains, thousands of square miles of land and billions of gallons of oil and fuel.”

Lithium is an important ingredient in electric car batteries, according to The New York Times. (RELATED: Do These Images Show The Differences Between The Environmental Impact Of Lithium Mining And Oil Sands Extraction?)

Some of the post’s claims are inaccurate. While the top photo does show an oil well and can be found on the stock photo website Unsplash, the bottom photo does not show a lithium mine. A reverse image search reveals it can be found on Getty Images with a description that reads, “Ore trucks in an open-pit mine. Calama, Atacama desert. North Chile.” The mine in question is used primarily to mine copper, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

A number of experts disagreed with the post’s assertions. Dr. Merritt Enders, professor and department head of the Mining Engineering Department at the Colorado School of Mines, told Check Your Fact in an email that “Oil wells take up a lot more that 500 square feet” and stated they could require up to an acre given the amount of equipment needed. He also pushed back on the post’s claims about lithium mining.

“Mining does not ‘eliminate entire mountains’, and most lithium is processed in brines not requiring any haul trucks,” explained Enders. “Some hard rock lithium deposits are mined using surface mining methods.”

In these surface operations, he said “The number of trucks and the size of these trucks depends on the size of the mine” but did note that one “Caterpillar 797, 400-ton, ultra-class haul truck” could use more than half a million gallons of fuel a year in the process of mining.

Joe Lowry, founder of Global Lithium LLC and the host of the Global Lithium Podcast, agreed with much of Enders’ assessment but claimed the post overestimated the amount of fuel it would take to operate a lithium mine.

“Much of the world’s lithium comes from brine operations where no mining is done,” he told Check Your Fact in an email. “Of lithium operations that actually mine the quoted fuel use is a gross exaggeration. There are less than 10 hard rock lithium mines (ex China) in commercial operation and they don’t all use the same equipment,” Lowry explained.

Dr. Kwame Awuah-Offei, a professor of mining and nuclear engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, likewise said the viral Facebook post is misleading.
“Saying lithium mines eliminate entire mountains is a bad generalization,” he told Check Your Fact in an email.”The amount of diesel a truck consumes is dependent on how much it runs.” Like Enders and Lowry, he noted that much of the world’s lithium is processed in brines that do not require trucks.

Hannah Hudnall

Fact Check Reporter