Fact check: Misleading meme shows copper mine – not lithium mine – USA TODAY

As drivers in the U.S. and around the world face sharp increases in gas prices amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, energy independence and alternative energy have become increasingly popular topics.
One meme that has appeared in dozens of recent Facebook posts pushes back against those advocating for electric cars by highlighting their use of lithium batteries. It claims to show a comparison between a lithium mine and a completed oil and natural gas pipeline.
In the top half of the meme, a photo labeled “Finished pipeline” shows a field of green grass lined by trees. Below it, a photo showing an expansive open-pit mine is captioned, “Lithium mine for your electric car.”
On Facebook, a post of the meme from March 8 received over 2,200 shares within a week, and dozens of other posts total thousands more.
The top half of the meme does show a buried pipeline, but the bottom half doesn’t show a lithium mine. Instead, it shows one of the world’s largest copper mines, the Escondida in northern Chile.
Experts told USA TODAY that there are significant differences between lithium and copper mines.
USA TODAY reached out to several users who shared the post for comment.
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USA TODAY traced the photo of the open-pit mine in the meme to numerous articles identifying it as the Escondida mine, including from AFP CanadaMining.comMercopress and Brazilian business magazine Negócios.
Escondida is an open-pit mine, one of the world’s largest for extracting copper.
Most copper is extracted from ore in open-pit mines such as Escondida. This process entails harvesting ore with a series of explosions that create the stepped benches shown in the photo. The mine becomes deeper and deeper over time.
However, the process for extracting lithium is vastly different, Rennie Kaunda, an assistant professor in the Mining Engineering Department at the Colorado School of Mines, wrote in an email to USA TODAY.
The primary difference: Around two-thirds of the world’s lithium production is extracted from natural brines, not from rock ores or open-pit mining.
First, groundwater containing lithium is pumped out of the ground and left to evaporate. The remaining minerals are then chemically refined into battery-grade lithium, said Datu Buyung Agusdinata, assistant professor at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.
This process is less destructive to the environment than open-pit mining, Agusdinata wrote to USA TODAY. However, he said, refining lithium from brine “causes the loss of about 95 percent of the brine-extracted water, severely depleting natural aquifers on which local communities depend.” Evaporation technologies also put local flora and fauna at risk of toxicity through leaks or spills.
“Copper and lithium mining are intrinsically destructive,” Agusdinata wrote. “In our quest for low carbon technologies to decarbonize our energy and transportation systems, impacts to local environment and communities cannot be ignored. Better refining and mining practices would be needed to minimize such impacts.”
Fact check:Electric vehicles emit fewer emissions and are better for the environment
The meme contrasts the copper mine’s barren landscape with a photo of a forest-lined grassy field that is captioned “Finished pipeline.”
USA TODAY found that the photo was first posted online by A&A Construction, a Pennsylvania company that specializes in oil and gas field services. The picture is from one of its projects.
The company’s website describes the photo as showing a “pipeline after being seeded,” which means the pipeline has been covered with dirt and new grass has been planted. USA TODAY could not reach A&A for comment.
Most pipelines are buried underground, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
In the U.S., most states have laws that require pipelines to be buried underground in all but exceptional circumstances. The laws also require construction companies to “reclaim” the land by restoring it to the same or better condition than it was in when the construction project disrupted it, said Christopher Zoller, an associate professor and agriculture and natural resources extension educator at Ohio State University.
More:Electric cars coming on fast: Climate worries, sinking prices put spotlight on EV sales
Based on our research, we rate PARTLY FALSE the claim that a meme shows photos of a lithium mine and a completed pipeline. The meme accurately describes a picture of a buried pipeline that has been seeded with new grass. However, the photo supposedly showing a lithium mine actually shows the Escondida copper mine in Chile.
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Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.


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