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DOE Federal Lab Says Life Cycle Analysis Does Not Factor in Rare Earth Metals or Mountain Top Removal

Submitted by on January 31, 2011 – 12:27 pmNo Comment

From left, Warren Brown, automotive columnist for the Washington Post and Ron Cogan, publisher of Green Car Journal co-moderate Green Car Summit Panel: Tom Baloga, VP Engineering for BMW North America; Susan M. Cischke, Group VP, Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering for Ford Motor Company; D. Hunt Ramsbottom, President and CEO of Rentech; Michael O'Brien, VP, Product and Corporate Planning, Hyundai Motor America; Don Hillebrand, Director, Center for Transportation Research, Argonne National Laboratory; Dr. Joseph Romm, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; and Arun Banskota, President, EV Services, NRG Energy in the Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building. Photo: J.Ivancic

by Joanne Ivancic (Advanced Biofuels USA)  At the Green Car Summit on Capitol Hill on January 26, 2011, Don Hillebrand, Director of the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne National Laboratory spoke about the process for assessing how much carbon is emitted as a greenhouse gas due to the production and use of biofuels.  He explained that the analysis factors in even the GHG emissions from fertilizers.

When asked, Hillebrand admitted that no consideration is given to carbon emitted as GHG emissions related to the mining, purification, processing and transport of rare earth metals used in electric vehicle batteries and motors.  Also not factored into the analysis of GHG emissions related to powering electric vehicles are the land use changes (direct or indirect) attributable to mining, etc., of such components of batteries and engines.  In addition, Hillebrand said that DOE has not even looked at these factors, nor did he mention any plans to incorporate this analysis into GHG emissions calculations.

Although forests are destroyed during mountain top removal to access coal deposits, this environmental damage also has not been factored into, or even looked at, with regard to GHG emissions calculations for electric vehicles, according to Hillebrand.  Hillebrand also did not offer a commitment or timeline for taking a look at or incorporating those factors into this carbon life cycle analysis.

Hillebrand did explain that the life cycle analysis for biofuels does include not only the fertilizer analysis mentioned above, but also transportation emissions and emissions related to farming processes.  Some also include in GHG analysis for biofuels emissions related to producing the caloric intake of drivers of the farming machinery, with estimates of about 4000 calories per person per day deemed relevant to farming processes.

Certainly, the destruction of unique forests such as those in the Appalachian Mountains that sequester carbon is an essential factor in the production of much coal used to generate electricity in the US.  Unquestionably, if carbon released in the tilling of soil to grow crops is factored into the carbon footprint of biofuels, a measure of the carbon released in the destruction of forests to access coal  related to powering electric vehicles should be included in the description of an electric vehicle’s carbon footprint.

It stands to reason that if investors, policy-makers, legislators and consumers are going to be able to make knowledgeable comparisons among transportation options, they need to be able to compare apples to apples, and life cycle analysis numbers to life cycle analysis numbers with the same intensity and level of detail.

In the meantime, decision-makers and the public should be aware that current life cycle analyses do not include these essential factors, do not go into equivalent detail.  It reminds us of George Orwell’s animals:  All life cycle analyses are equal; some are more equal than others.

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