A new mining industry threatens New York State’s environment and climate goals

Proof-of-work crypto miners have set up shop in New York, consuming tremendous energy from New York’s grid and refiring once dormant fossil fuel-burning power plants.

There are lots of opinions about the financial and economic pros and cons of cryptocurrency. But regardless of whether you think “crypto” is cool and a great way to hit the cyber-lottery, make big money, or a shadowy system to skirt financial rules — we should be aware about a certain type of cryptocurrency mining and its negative impact on the environment. When it comes to climate change, some forms of cryptocurrency are anything but cool. 

Proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining, the process used to validate certain cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, is especially bad for the Earth and communities. Proof-of-work mining uses high-capacity computers that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, working to solve the complex math equations in order to validate “coins.” Proof-of-work crypto miners have set up shop in New York, consuming tremendous energy from New York’s grid and, in some cases, getting their power by refiring once dormant fossil fuel-burning power plants. These activities are significantly increasing New York’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption at a time when it’s critical to cut back on both, while also jeopardizing the environment and health of the communities they’re situated in.

To understand what the local impacts feel like, look no further than Dresden, New York, where the Greenidge Generating Station on the shore of Seneca Lake, an old coal power plant that had stopped operating for 6 years, was converted into a gas-fueled power plant that was supposed to run only when there are power shortages. Since early 2020, the plant’s owners expanded operations to power a proof-of-work cryptomining facility 24/7/365. 

Greenidge reported an approximately ten-fold increase in planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions just in 2020. In one three-month period in 2021, EPA emissions data show that the CO2 emissions there nearly doubled, from 119,013 tons of CO2 (through June 30, 2021) to 203,833 tons of CO2 (through September 30, 2021), as it ramped up the installation of cryptocurrency mining equipment.  

If bitcoin were a country, it would rank in the top 30 countries of energy users worldwide — between Argentina and Norway.  

Adding to the planet-heating mining operations, Finger Lakes residents, local business owners, and environmental advocates have raised concerns about the impact from 24/7 proof-of-work cryptomining’s discharges of hot water directly into Seneca Lake. The power plant’s current water permit allows Greenidge to take in 139 million gallons of water per day and discharge 134 million gallons daily, and at temperatures as high as 108 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the EPA, increased water temperatures can stress fish and increase toxic algae blooms.  

With the unregulated crypto boom, we can expect proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining operations to increase operations of old fossil fuel-based power plants across the country, including here in New York. Adding salt to the wound, proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining consumes so much energy, it would be an impossible uphill battle for renewable energy sources to meet residential and essential industrial needs along with New York’s existing and expected renewable energy needs from beneficial electrification efforts as the state strives to meet the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). 

On the national front, this month, President Biden signed an executive order directing his administration to produce a report on cryptocurrency operations including a review into planet-warming concerns. 

Should proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining continue to expand in New York, it would drastically undermine New York’s climate goals established under the CLCPA. Reaping in millions of dollars in proof-of-work crypto-lottery dreams must not come at the expense of our environment and our state’s climate goals. Governor Hochul must take action to uphold our nation-leading climate law by instituting a moratorium on proof-of-work mining until its environmental and energy systems impacts can be studied, as well as denying Greenidge’s air permit now. If New York is serious about addressing the climate crisis and protecting communities, we can’t play whack-a-mole with this industry.  

Elizabeth Moran is a policy advocate based in the Northeast Office. Based in New York’s Capital Region, Liz advocates for policies to combat the climate crisis, protect water quality, keep public health and the environment safe from toxic chemicals, and to create more sustainable food and farming practices.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.