Fact Checking on Hummer vs Prius Article

This is one post in a series, describing what I've learned while attempting to understand my ecological footprint.

You're about to read a quote. Before you believe it read the three sentences that follow it. Ready? Ok, here it goes.

"A Hummer does less environmental damage than a Prius."

Two things about that quote.
  1. It's flaming pile of donkey poop (or untrue).
  2. It's what a friend said to me over dinner when I mentioned that an electric car would be ideal for my commute.
There was no malice intended, it was just something he had heard. We had all heard this "fact" but none of us could remember the source. I vaguely recalled reading that the data used to support that claim was funded by big car companies so I tossed that info right back across the table. It turns out my response may (keep reading) have also been a flaming pile of donkey poop.

Poop analogies aside, I wanted to get my facts straight. Here's what I found when I asked my truthiness exposing questions.

Investigating The Source
The original source of this statement is from an article in the Editorials & Commentary section of Central Connecticut State University's student run newspaper, The Recorder. The article "Prius Outdoes Hummer in Environmental Damage" puts forth the idea that if you buy a Hummer instead of a Prius you'll have less of a negative impact on the environment. On the off chance you get bored and stop reading let me stress that the article is totally wrong. Before we dissect the supporting information in the article, there are two critical pieces of information about the source.

  1. This is the same student newspaper who's editors saw their way clear to publishing a piece called "Rape Only Hurts If You Fight It" in the same opinions section of their paper. I've actually read it and it is even more offensive than the title suggests. There's no way I'm providing a link because I really don't want to back trace to that article. Google it if you must.
  2. The author of the Hummer vs. Prius article recanted a few weeks later with another article titled "Prius Still Not Sitting Pretty". In this article the author explains a few key points.
    • His data source is "dubious at best".
    • He thinks hybrids are a band-aid and suggests there are better alternatives such as full electric cars. He states that this was basically his motivation for writing the first article.
    • He is apologetic for not doing better fact checking.

The Facts vs The Opinions
The guy that wrote the Hummer vs. Prius article made some arguments that despite his recanting are becoming part of the public conscious. So lets take a look at each one.

From the article: "The nickel (for Prius batteries) is mined and smelted at a plant in Sudbury, Ontario. This plant has caused so much environmental damage to the surrounding environment that NASA has used the ‘dead zone’ around the plant to test moon rovers."

Fact Checking Result: Nickel mining and more specifically smelting releases sulfur which results in acid rain. That combined with an aggressive logging industry in Sudbury lead to the death of much of the local vegetation. While NASA did use Sudbury for the Apollo moon landing testing they did so, not because of the dead vegetation, but because Sudbury has formations of Shatter Cones, a rare rock formation connected with meteorite impacts. The rock formations are unrelated to the nickel mine. Sudbury has recovered dramatically since 1970 when they started paying attention to the environment. Source: Wikipedia->Greater Sudbury, Ontario->Geography

He has the beginning of a good point peaking through the truthiness. Nickel is dirty to mine and refine. Lithium is probably a better choice. But still, nickel is not as bad as driving a Hummer. I can't find any study that even suggests that the environmental cost of mining nickel is greater than burning fossil fuels in our cars. In both cases you're burning stuff. Either smelting the nickel or burning the oil. The difference is that with nickel you are burning it in one place, at the plant. It's much easier to put in technology to capture released sulfur at the smelting plant instead of optimizing the gas output of all the cars. You can also reuse and recycle the nickel, so it lasts a lot longer than one car... which leads to the second point.

Comparing the Vehicles
From the article: The author makes a number of claims based on conclusions from a report titled 'Dust to Dust' written by CNW Marketing. There are three false points that have become fairly common in most discussions.
  • The negative environmental impact generated by manufacturing and operating a Prius is greater than that of the Hummer. [Not true]
  • A major environmental cost of the Prius is in shipping the nickel all over the world to turn it into batteries. [This is so far from true you can't see true from there.]
  • Hummer's last 300k miles and Prius's last ~100k. [They apparently just made these numbers up.]

Fact Checking Result: I was not able to determine who pays CNW Research, but their voluntary answer is suspect. The CNW website FAQ says, and yes this is a quote:
"Who pays for your studies?

CNW M/R performs syndicated studies. That doesn't mean the mob is involved, only that we perform the study and then pray someone cares about the information we've learned."

As for their report, CNW is guilty of blatantly misleading the public. The 3 above claims, as well as just about everything else in the CNW report, is false. The nicest way to say it is that their conclusions contradict the results of numerous existing scientific studies and they provide no reasonable supporting data for their conclusions. The things that are true in the report are the spelling of the words Hummer and Prius.

Source: The Pacific Institute provides a concise, fact based rebuttal. Their report "Dust to Dust” Report Misleads the Media and Public with Bad Science" explains the numerous failings of the CNW report. A direct link to the Pacific Institutes report can be found here. It's only 7 pages and provides a clear explanation as to why the CNW report and its conclusions are a pile of flaming donkey poop. The Pacific Institute was professional enough to avoid direct use of the word poop.

My Conclusion
The content and conclusion presented in the article titled "Prius Outdoes Hummer in Environmental Damage" is incorrect. The author has an opinion that hybrids are a poor choice and that we should move to pure electric cars. Unfortunately he attempted to further that point of view by demonizing the Prius through the use of bad data and made up "facts" instead of simply sharing his opinion. He does a much better job stating his opinion in his second article and makes some valid points about the value of electric cars. The truth is, he is just a kid learning about journalism. Unfortunately, his pile of flaming truthiness is now entrenched in the public consciousness.

The people and organizations (Rush Limbaugh & CNW Marketing) that reported this information as fact are officially on my list of donkey poop generating sources. They shall not be trusted.

As for the guy that brought this up at dinner, I'm really glad he did. I'll share my findings with him and the other guys and hopefully they will share it with a few other people. If we're really lucky it might even turn into a discussion where we all learn something from each other. I just hope I got to them before they ran out and all bought Hummers.

Update 2007-06-04: This story has been submitted to digg. You can digg it here.