Nobody has proven electric cars unequivocally less environmentally friendly than gas and diesel cars but that does not stop people from throwing what they can on the wall to see what sticks.
It’s effectively propaganda, and you the general public are the target. Of course it does not declare itself as propaganda, but you may see it presented as new information about potentially negative environmental impacts of electric vehicles (EVs).
The underlying message: Think twice! Policymakers and environmentalists may be on the wrong road dragging others along with their hyped green religion.
Since mass-market EVs were introduced in late 2010, anti-EV arguments have varied from baseless to getting in a few good jabs. Sources have been opinion pieces to studies to – worst of all – re-reports of studies taking researchers out of context to justify eyeball-grabbing headlines.
Why this is happening also has opinions – such as “Big Oil” or other interests are back-door funding research or media to play the unsuspecting public which is otherwise a revenue source. Short of conspiracy theories, less sinister motives may be attributed to careless writers who merely want to jerk your attention to what they have to say.
Nor is this to say EVs are clean as daisies growing in a meadow.
It is certain that they do involve environmental costs as does any consumer good. At issue is whether they are worth it for society to pursue – and subsidize even – in the effort to curtail greenhouse gases and petroleum dependence.
EVs are still in their first generation, and are a measured compromise, but what can stick out to Jane Q. Public is a de facto thumbs down. That is, the takeaway message from sensational words later toned down after the reader has been hooked is EVs are not ready, may never be, gas cars may be cleaner, and so forth.
Whether deliberate propaganda or inadvertent, when this happens it sows confusion in a public that already is unclear on issues and new technologies. And, it does so despite other peer-reviewed science declaring EVs a good solution.
Following are highlights of stories that portray EVs from askance. We won’t point-by-point refute them as that would take too much space, but if others have tried to bat down any false assertions, we’ll link what we can.
1) ‘Study: Your All-Electric Car May Not Be So Green’
This savory headline was written late last year by an AP writer who cherry picked a study co-author’s words to portray EVs in a worse-than-represented light. Other outlets dutifully grabbed the AP news feed, and re-spun or reprinted it whole in all of its incorrect glory.
The inaccurate story by the AP opens saying: “People who own all-electric cars where coal generates the power may think they are helping the environment. But a new study finds their vehicles actually make the air dirtier, worsening global warming.”
The juicy opening quote: “It’s kind of hard to beat gasoline” for public and environmental health, said study co-author Julian Marshall, an engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. “A lot of the technologies that we think of as being clean … are not better than gasoline.”
Marshall later said his quote referred to the life-cycle for ethanol, not EVs, but this does not give EVs a blanket pass as environmentally friendly.
“Our research found that the source of electricity matters very much in determining how “environmentally friendly” an EV is,” said Marshall. “If EVs are powered by coal-based emissions, they are much dirtier than if they are powered by renewable-based electricity; coal-based EVs are dirtier than conventional vehicles.”
He also reportedly said if he’d written the headline it would have been along the lines of EVs (powered by electricity from natural gas or wind, water, or solar power) are best for improving air quality.
Beyond this, he sent us the following video to partially correct the record, and provided further details below:
My comment to the AP reporter was that of the vehicles we studied, the cleanest ones were EVs running on clean electricity, including renewables (wind, water, solar) and natural gas. Other than those options, it’s difficult to beat gasoline: conventional ethanol is worse than gasoline, EVs running on dirty electricity (coal) also are worse than gasoline.
The reporter elected to lead with the second part of the quote (“EVs can be dirty”) and then introduce the first part (“EVs can be clean”) later in the article.
The AP and other re-reports never wrote a correction, but several did get an earful in the comments section by readers tearing the hit piece apart.
2) Are electric cars damaging YOUR region? Maps reveal how EVs can be WORSE for the environment than gas-guzzling vehicles
This headline in June from the UK’s Daily Mail was one of several reports on a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The Daily Mail based its re-write on a story by CityLab that wrote: “In oversimplified terms, the researchers determined the emissions produced by gasoline car tailpipes and the emissions produced by electricity grids that power EVs for every U.S. county. “
They did dive down deep, and to be sure there are regional and hourly variances in grids across the country. The researchers focused on five major pollutants: carbon (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen (NOx), particulate matter (PM 2.5), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
These go beyond the basic greenhouse gases the EPA accounts for on fueleconomy.gov, but omitted were upstream emissions involved in getting the gasoline to the pump.
Rather, EVs’ upstream emissions for cars like the Ford Focus and Focus Electric were factored as “smokestack,” but emissions the EPA associates with sourcing, refining and transporting gasoline to the pump were not factored.
For this reason, Internet commenters have called the research flawed, but a source involved with the study who asked not to be named observed also omitted are further upstream electric emissions, such as mining coal and shipping it to power plants.
What commenters don’t realize, the source said, is that if coal extraction and shipping plus production of EVs were considered, they’d have fared even worse. So if anything, goes the reasoning, results are slightly biased in favor of electric cars.
That argument could be countered by those observing many more upstream costs involved in oil that could lend themselves to higher GHG than the EPA conservatively estimates, but this is what you have.
As it is, the researchers say tailpipe versus EV smokestack emissions data is fair.
And, it’s used to color maps into veritable no-man’s lands for EVs which would not have changed if upstream-for-gasoline info was factored, says the source.
Meanwhile, EPA data does factor upstream gas versus smokestack. It says emissions for a Ford Focus Electric and conventional gas Focus shows one of the worst coal-intensive grids named in the study – Grand Ford, North Dakota – nets GHG of 270 g/mile for the EV versus 351 g/mile for the conventional Focus.
Whether the economic working paper makes valid points is unquestioned, but the sensational takeaway message by reports was inaccurate, and the researchers – economists – justified statements including that the $7,500 federal tax credit is a poor investment.
In response to the working paper, the Union of Concerned Scientist’ Dave Reichmuth wrote a thorough analysis to point out shortcomings.
3) Each EV is to blame for 60 lifetime metric tons CO2 and 6,700 extra gallons of gas burned
OK, we’ve heard arguments that EVs are responsible for upstream CO2, but if you’re scratching your head over the gasoline, this bit of logic takes some explaining.
The above is not a headline, but is the summary of an unequivocal statement made by research published by Carnegie Mellon University Engineering and Public Policy.
As the name implies, it offers recommendations to federal policymakers to think twice about Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules for now through 2025. Why?
“Federal fuel economy standards allow automakers that sell PEVs [plug-in electrified vehicles] to meet less-stringent fleet fuel efficiency standards through 2025,” says an abstract. “So, when one consumer opts for a PEV it allows other consumers to purchase higher-emitting vehicles, and net U.S. emissions and gasoline consumption increase.
“Each time a PEV is sold in the United States, net vehicle fleet greenhouse gas emissions increase by up to 60 metric tons of CO2 and U.S. U.S. gasoline consumption increases by up to 6,700 gallons,” says the abstract.
That’s right. What it says without qualifiers is federal rules allow automakers to sell gas guzzlers in other states that don’t need to sell any electric cars at all. Therefore, it is reasoned, consumers who buy a car like a Nissan Leaf are complicit with the twisted policy, and thus indirectly responsible for guzzlers purchased. The authors thus unequivocally assume that every PEV equals guzzlers that will wipe out any benefit offered by car like a Nissan Leaf.
This would seem to indicate a national policy challenge that now needs to be tackled, but not any issue with the typical electric car being sold.
Alternatively, EV advocates might say a PEV displaces a guzzler, but the authors invert that possibility and make a recommendation:
To achieve the best outcomes, PEV adoption should typically be focused on HEVs and PHEVs by city drivers in mild-climate regions with a clean electricity grid, such as San Francisco or Los Angeles. And drivers should not be encouraged to charge at night in coal-heavy regions. However, because of federal fuel economy policy, even in the best scenario U.S. PEV adoption may result in increased emissions and gasoline consumption – at least through 2025.
And why does Carnegie Mellon think most should drive a hybrid or plug-in hybrid and not a battery only EV? Because as you can see a video by Jeremy Michalek, director of its Vehicle Electrification group, CMU’s (now somewhat dated 2011) research shows that a big battery EV with 150-plus miles range isn’t currently the best choice on average for reducing pollution.
But that’s a far cry from the anti-EV stance that their research has been cherry picked by other papers and articles to appear to support, as is the case with the study referenced above by the Daily Mail. The original source is needed to see the whole picture.
In this video, Professor Michalek goes in depth on the research that supports the smaller battery plug in hybrid EV recommendation:
Meanwhile again, in the worst coal-intensive “RMPA” grid region, a Nissan Leaf’s electricity is responsible for 290 g/mile of CO2, less than the average 24-mpg car’s 480 g/mile, and much better than a guzzler.
Many More From Where These Came From
We could triple the length of this article just summarizing a few more studies and resultant re-reports and rebuttals, but maybe it is clear mixed messages are being disseminated?
A few years ago, what EV supporters considered anti-plug-in hit pieces focused on other issues like expensive batteries, short range, high prices, political implications, worry over fire, and more.
Fox News’ Neil Cavuto went so far as to tell millions of viewers the Chevy Volt was simply “stupid,” an “Obamamobile,” and spouses who failed to remember to plug it in at night would get a divorce over the car.
What ever the motives, stories that tear down EVs’ claim to fame have become a focus.
And, each time one of these stories comes out, counter stories from the much-less-influential pro-EV press may come out to combat major media repeating EVs-aren’t-green rhetoric.
So it goes, but if you are an information consumer, please remember, it is caveat emptor – buyer beware.