Carnegie-Mellon's EV Lead Emissions Study

Lester Lave
(Carnegie-Mellon University)
In May of 2011, Carnegie-Mellon professor Lester Lave passed away. The university's obituary described Lave as an "environmental economist," a term that should make any EV supporter's spidey-sense tingle.

Lave died 16 years to the day after the New York Times published an EV hit piece, based on Lave's research in collaboration with his C-M colleagues Chris Hendrickson and Francis McMichael. Their work purported to show that EVs were a greater environmental hazard than ICEVs, because of potential lead emissions from their batteries.

Lave, it must be said, may have been partly responsible for the Clean Air Act of 1970. His late-1960s research placing a blunt dollar value on human lives lost to air pollution may seem callous, but money is often the only language that conservative governments understand. It landed Lave on US president Richard Nixon's infamous enemies list. But at the end of 1970, Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law and created the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The Times piece of 9 May 1995 was republished and excerpted by other media sources. It was quoted again and again. The oil companies and other EV enemies gleefully picked up this new club and came out swinging against California's Braude Initiative, the law that aimed to make EVs 10% of California vehicle sales by 2003.

There was one little problem with their club: it was hewn from rotten wood.

Some of the glaring flaws in Lave's calculations:

  1. They were based on the GM Impact EV prototype, but used radically wrong data.

  2. They disregarded the lead batteries already in use in millions of ICEVs.

  3. They used Bureau of Mines lead emissions data from the era before anti-pollution regulation, updated not with then-modern data, but with "[the research team's] best estimates of current discharges."

  4. They drew a faulty parallel between tailpipe lead from leaded gasoline in ICEVs and lead from smelters. Tailpipe lead is emitted as particulates and inhaled. Smelter lead release takes the more benign and manageable form of slag.

  5. They paid no heed to the fact that 96.8% of the lead in batteries was recycled, assuming that new batteries were always made from freshly mined lead.

  6. They didn't consider a then-new EPA regulation further reducing already-low lead recycling emissions by 70%.

  7. They took no note of the likelihood that lead batteries would eventually be supplanted by advanced batteries using less harmful materials.

  8. They failed to account for the health-damaging effect and environmental impact of such ICEV emissions as carcinogenic benzene and aromatics, Diesel exhaust particulates, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and CO2.

  9. They ignored the water and soil pollution hazards of ICEVs' antifreeze and crankcase oil leaks.

  10. They made the bizarre, unsupportable statement that nickel is "highly toxic."

Completely disregarding the C-M study's other failures, just correcting the invalid Impact technical data reduces their calculated lead emissions figure almost 75%, from 27 g/km to 7 g/km.

Then there's the matter of money. The Science article footnotes disclose funding for the study from the National Science Foundation and the Green Design Consortium of the Carnegie-Mellon University Engineering Design Research Center. That sounds innocuous, no?

Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.
-- Jonathan Swift

The Engineering Design Research Center at Carnegie Mellon University said that they were "open to industrial partners interested in participating [in] and guiding consortium projects," including "the opportunity to provide input on research direction and suggest specific research programs," and "access to Carnegie Mellon University laboratories and researchers, Green Design research data, working papers, and government research grants through cooperative university proposals."

Who might those interested industrial partners be? Well, the EDRC's directory listed them. They included BP America, Exxon Research and Engineering, Mobil Research and Development, and Shell Development.

Neither the New York Times nor Science seems to have made an effort to corroborate or even discuss the Carnegie-Mellon research with other environmental organizations before running with it. Over 25 years later, EV supporters are still dogged by this bogus claim. Incredibly, outrageously, Carnegie-Mellon even rehashed it in Lave's obituary.