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Solutions and balance: oil extraction, or battery material mining?

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By Leon Stille

· 5 min read

Many comments on the environmental impact of the growing battery extraction mining industry lacks a comparison to the current alternative; oil extraction. The stark environmental toll of oil extraction is often not mentioned or even overshadowed by the discourse surrounding battery material mining. Despite its sprawling presence across nearly 100 countries and the extraction of 100 million barrels per day, oil extraction's impacts on soil, water, and air remain largely unacknowledged when talked about in relation to the battery mining industry. It contributes to a myriad of health issues, from cancer to neurological symptoms, and significantly worsens climate change through methane and CO2 emissions. Deforestation, habitat destruction, and catastrophic oil spills further underscore its destructive nature. These impacts should always be Illuminated in any discourse of the very real environmental impact of battery mining and materials extractions.  This does not discharge the mining industry from pursuing a gold standard for it’s environmental footprint but compared to the current standard of oil extraction the footprint is very limited. 

The pathway towards net zero is a meandering road through a forest of different solutions. It is often hard to compare and distinguish between different technologies and their impact on the environment and emissions. Especially when comparing the impact of the new, say batteries for electric vehicles, to the old, oil extraction and refining for internal combustion engines. In the realm of environmental discourse I often come across discussions around the extraction of battery materials painting a grim picture of ecological devastation. Yet, amidst the fervor, there exists a deafening silence surrounding the alternative to this: oil extraction. It's time we shed light on this oversight and engage in a balanced comparison between the two.

The cost of oil

Oil extraction, a cornerstone of modern civilization, is a sprawling industry with tentacles reaching across the globe. With approximately 70,000 oil fields scattered across nearly 100 countries, it's a behemoth that demands attention. Each day, roughly 100 million barrels of oil, amounting to a staggering 4.5 billion tons annually, are extracted from the Earth's crust. These figures alone should give pause to anyone concerned about environmental sustainability.

Yet, the true cost of oil extraction extends far beyond mere quantity. It leaves a trail of devastation in its wake, contaminating soil, water, and air with a toxic cocktail of pollutants. From cancer to liver damage, immunodeficiency, and neurological symptoms, the health impacts on both humans and wildlife are profound and far-reaching.

Moreover, oil extraction is a significant contributor to climate change. Even before the oil is refined and burned, the extraction process releases methane and CO2, exacerbating global warming. Shockingly, many oil producers have been caught underreporting these emissions, further obscuring the true extent of the industry's environmental footprint.

Deforestation, another casualty of oil exploration and extraction, further underscores its destructive nature. Habitats are destroyed, biodiversity is lost, and ecosystems are irreparably altered, all in the pursuit of fossil fuels.

Every year, the world witnesses at least one catastrophic oil spill, unleashing thousands of tons of crude oil into fragile ecosystems. These disasters not only wreak havoc on the environment but also inflict economic and social hardships on affected communities.

The evidence is clear: oil extraction exacts a heavy toll on both the environment and human health. Yet, despite the mounting body of research highlighting these impacts, media coverage remains conspicuously scant.

Battery material mining vs oil extraction

Contrast this with the attention lavished upon battery material mining, and a glaring double standard emerges. While it's undeniable that mining activities have their own set of environmental challenges, the disproportionate focus on them obscures the broader context. 

The extraction of battery materials, while integral to the burgeoning electric vehicle and renewable energy sectors, carries its own set of environmental challenges. Mining operations for materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel can result in habitat destruction, water contamination, and ecosystem disruption. For instance, lithium extraction often involves pumping brine from underground reservoirs, which can deplete local water sources and harm nearby ecosystems. Cobalt mining, primarily concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been associated with human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Moreover, the energy-intensive nature of processing and refining these materials can result in significant greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change.

However, when comparing the environmental footprint of battery material extraction to the oil industry, the scale and magnitude of impact are vastly different. While both industries have ecological consequences, the sheer volume of oil extracted globally each day dwarfs that of battery materials. Oil extraction contaminates soil, water, and air on a massive scale, leading to widespread health issues and ecosystem devastation. The frequency and severity of oil spills, coupled with the underreported emissions of methane and CO2 during extraction, further exacerbate its environmental toll. Thus, while battery material extraction presents challenges that demand attention and mitigation strategies, it pales in comparison to the environmental devastation wrought by the oil industry.


When looking for a sustainable future, it's imperative that we approach these issues with objectivity and nuance. While mining battery materials may pose environmental challenges it is far more limited compared to the current alternative: a fossil fuel industry polluting on a planetary scale. Only by confronting the realities of this industry can we hope to usher in a truly sustainable future.

It is important we make this distinction always when we address the very real pollution impact of the growing battery materials mining industry. The scale with which everyday oil extraction is adding harmful substances to the air, water and soil is incomparable larger at the moment. This comparison is often not made thus painting a wrong picture of the relative impact. Making it impossible to draw the right conclusions.   

Of course we do have the opportunity to ‘do it right’ and this should be the standard for battery materials extraction now and in the future. Sadly economic pressures are not helping in this respect but I remain hopeful that the additional attention to these issues is nudging it along towards a minimal environmental footprint. 

 illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Leon Stille is managing director of New Energy Institute. New Energy Institute is focused on expert advice, education, and innovation, consulting for companies like BCG, Shell, TNO, Berq RNG and several investment firms. He is also key lecturer for renewable gas and hydrogen for New Energy Business School, expert speaker on energy transition topics for several universities (MBA energy transition of the University of Groningen and University of Rotterdam) and often speaks and moderates at key industrial conferences and events. He also holds several advisory positions at the European Biogas Association, Hydrogen Europe and committee member sustainability of the international gas union. Leon holds 3 patents on renewable gas purification and conversion.

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