NY should follow the science on climate and ban crypto mining

Guest Opinion by Anthony Ingraffea

New York state followed the science on Covid. Government leaders took the advice of doctors and public health professionals, enacting commonsense policy to slow the spread. Following the science is, unequivocally, the right thing to do. If only New York’s leaders were consistently doing the same to combat the other existential threat we face: climate change.

Scientists agree that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions 43 percent by 2030 in order to keep global warming from exceeding dangerous levels. New York state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), enacted in 2019, offers a roadmap to get us there, but a roadmap is worthless if it isn’t followed. Cryptocurrency operations are a fast-growing industry in New York state but a climate-insidious form of operation that threatens to veer us completely off track. And Gov. Kathy Hochul has yet to do anything to stop it.

I’m a civil and environmental engineer who has studied the detrimental effects of proof-of-work cryptomining, which Bitcoin uses. Even though the “mining” happens digitally, the impacts are very tangible. Powerful computers and cooling devices whir 24/7, competing to find the answer to a complex puzzle. The first miner to solve the puzzle “mines” a Bitcoin, meaning the more machines running at once, the faster the puzzle is solved. It’s confusing, but we don’t need to get bogged down in the nitty gritty of how it works. Because what’s not confusing is the fact that globally, proof-of-work cryptomining now uses the same amount of power as the entire country of Argentina. While governments should be doing everything they can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and beat back climate change, New York is shepherding in an industry adding an entire country’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. We’re host to 20% of all Bitcoin mining in the U.S. — the most of any state.

Perhaps the worst culprit — and the test case for the cryptomining industry in New York — is Greenidge Generation, located on the shores of Seneca Lake. Greenidge is a power plant originally re-permitted to burn fracked gas and produce power for the grid in times of high demand, like during the summer when many New Yorkers are running our air conditioners. But only operating sometimes isn’t the most profitable, especially for a power plant that is now owned by a private equity firm. So Greenidge changed its business plan — after receiving an air emissions permit — and now emits greenhouse gases 24/7/365 to power its nearly 20,000 energy-intensive Bitcoin mining machines, with even more machines being installed. The greenhouse gases it emits are equivalent to those of at least 78,000 of its neighbors and their businesses combined — or three-quarters of Tompkins County.

That’s 78,000 everyday New Yorkers who have to completely upend our routines and go zero-emissions if we want to stay on track to meet CLCPA emission reductions goals, thanks to Greenidge. All for a facility that has brought a whopping 48 jobs to its region — equivalent to your average McDonald’s. Meanwhile, the air, water, and noise pollution caused by Greenidge is a major threat to the local $3 billion, 60,000-job agritourism economy.

Greenidge’s air permits are currently up for renewal by the state, and the deadline to make a decision has already been extended five additional months, to the climate’s detriment. Hochul and the Department of Environmental Conservation must follow the science, protect the CLCPA from climate-killing cryptomining, and deny Greenidge’s permits, especially because this decision is about more than just one plant. If Greenidge is given the greenlight, it’s a signal to more outside speculators that New York’s closed and underutilized fossil fuel-powered plants are up for grabs to take us farther backward in our fight against climate change, just to make a few rich people richer with speculative “money.”

Many have suggested using renewable energy as a solution to this problem, but it’s not. The Coinmint plant in Massena, New York, is powered by enough green, baseload hydroelectricity sourced from the public grid to power 14,000 homes. Instead of this green power being used to reduce New York’s dependence on fossil fuels, we’re squandering it on fake money.

Thankfully, the state Assembly recognized the cryptomining threat and just passed a two-year moratorium on new and renewed permits for facilities like Greenidge. Now, it’s up to the Senate to pass this bill. But even when they do, it will be too late to impact Greenidge’s fate.

So it’s up to Hochul and the Department of Environmental Conservation to be the leaders on climate they claim to be. They must follow the science, deny Greenidge’s permits, and support a cryptomining moratorium. Our climate law — and the climate itself — is at stake.