Is it possible that a Hummer's better for the environment than a Prius is?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 18 2008 7:39 AM

Tank vs. Hybrid

Is it possible that a Hummer's better for the environment than a Prius is?

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"Dust to Dust" also posits that the vast majority of a car's cradle-to-grave energy gets expended during production. That assertion runs contrary to virtually every other analysis of vehicular life cycles, including those conducted by MIT (PDF) and Argonne National Laboratory. The authors of "Dust to Dust" try to explain this discrepancy on pages 277 and 278 of the report, by invoking a truly weird analogy to coffee production. (How weird? CNW proposes factoring a consumer's post-coffee "bathroom run" into the commodity's life-cycle equation.) The Lantern is, to say the least, unconvinced, especially since CNW refuses to reveal its methodology—about as bright a red flag as you could ever hope to see. CNW's science is so feeble, in fact, that the Central Connecticut student who first cited it went on to publish a partial recantation, admitting that "Dust to Dust" is "dubious at best." (The writer says he's still no fan of gas-electric hybrids, claiming they've been embraced to the exclusion of more promising technologies.)

Another major part of the anti-Prius meme is that the car's battery uses 32 pounds of nickel, mined in Sudbury, Ontario. The skeptical e-mails often state that Sudbury is an environmental wasteland that resembles "a surrealistic scene from the depths of hell." That assertion might have been true about three decades ago, long before the Prius. Nickel mining is by no means a clean endeavor, but Sudbury's conditions have improved in recent years. On top of that, all cars contain nickel in their frames—the Hummer's frame, for example, has twice as much nickel as the Prius'. Also, nickel is 80 percent to 95 percent recoverable during the recycling process. (Future hybrids may use lithium batteries instead of NiMH, though the next-generation Prius does not.)

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All that said, Toyota acknowledges that manufacturing a Prius is more energy intensive than making a nonhybrid car. Argonne's scientists estimate that producing a pound's worth of a hybrid car requires 38,650 British thermal units, 23 percent more than that required to build a pound of a traditional car. But the Prius' fuel savings can make up that difference rather quickly, at least compared with the average car, which gets a measly 22.9 miles per gallon. (The EPA estimates the Prius' fuel efficiency at 48 miles per gallon in the city, 45 on the highway—estimates that Prius owners typically claim are far too low.)

Sadly, the Lantern fully expects to continue receiving the same anti-Prius e-mails, citing the same flimsy evidence. Perhaps because of its association with the glitterati, the Prius attracts a large amount of venom, mostly from critics who specialize in knocking the stuffing out of straw men. These naysayers gleefully point out the hypocrisy of stars who drive Priuses while jetting around the globe in private planes or lambaste Toyota for milking the car for publicity.

None of these critiques should obscure that fact that the Prius represents a step in the right direction—innovation designed to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions and that the market (abetted by tax breaks) seems to be rewarding. Will the car slow climate change all by its lonesome? Of course not, but no one has ever suggested as much. Will it soon be eclipsed by newer technologies? Quite likely, and quite hopefully. But attacking the Prius for not being perfect—especially with lame scuttlebutt masquerading as science—strikes the Lantern as dangerously inane.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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