Last week, Earthjustice, Clean Air Council and PennFuture submitted comments to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) urging the department to deny a plantwide pollution bubble for operations at the Panther Creek power plant, a waste coal-fired power plant now home to thousands of bitcoin mining machines. The environmental organizations cited in their comments the Department’s proposed action on an obsolete permit application that did not reflect Panther Creek’s transformation to cryptomining operations, and related increases in pollution.
Panther Creek is a waste coal-fired power plant located in Nesquehoning, PA that now operates cryptocurrency mining on site, which is an energy-intensive process for creating virtual currency. The plant’s prior owners submitted an application to the DEP back in 2016, five years prior to its shift to cryptomining operations. Stronghold Digital Mining purchased the plant in November 2021, and now has thousands of bitcoin mining machines located on site.
“DEP must not rely on data from a bygone era,” said Charles McPhedran, Senior Attorney, Earthjustice. “Panther Creek mines crypto now. The plant’s emissions have shot up, and DEP must prevent today’s pollution problems.”
The fossil-based crypto mining operations taking place at Panther Creek pose the same — but increased — environmental and public health threats as their original operations — waste coal combustion to produce electricity. In fact, emissions of both sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen at Panther Creek skyrocketed in 2022 following the change to cryptomining. Waste coal plants such as Panther Creek are also significant sources of carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas. By expanding dirty, fossil-fueled generation, cryptocurrency mining at Panther Creek undermines Pennsylvania’s efforts to reduce local air pollution and emissions of greenhouse gasses across the Commonwealth.
Despite the environmental consequences of Panther Creek’s new crypto mining operations, the power plant receives significant state subsidies in order to stay in business. Burning waste coal is expensive, and in order to keep up with operational and maintenance costs, Stronghold relies on four different taxpayer subsidies. Cryptomining operations are not only harmful to Pennsylvania’s environment and public health, it is an expensive and unsustainable use of energy that pollutes our air.
Earlier this month, the DEP confirmed that another fossil-powered miner, Diversified Production LLC, installed and operated cryptocurrency mining infrastructure in Elk County before obtaining the required permits from the Department. The well pad, which originally housed fracking operations, applied for a permit to build five gas-powered engines and one generator with the purpose of mining cryptocurrency — but Diversified began cryptomining operations before the DEP’s approval. DEP stated Diversified is “required by law to obtain a plan approval from DEP prior to installation and operation of the air contamination sources. Installation of the equipment without a plan approval could lead to enforcement action by the DEP.”
“Cryptomining operations powered by polluting fossil fuels are spreading across the state and threatening to undo any progress we will make to clean up our energy supply. Unless we stop the waste and stop the pollution all the people of Pennsylvania, and particularly the most vulnerable among us, will pay the price. If we are to uphold the public’s right to clean air and a healthy environment, the DEP must deny Panther Creek’s application,” said Rob Altenburg, Senior Director for Energy and Climate, PennFuture.
“Panther Creek’s application is well over six years old and obsolete. The facility has since fundamentally changed its operating methods to now perform energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining. That alone is sufficient reason for DEP to withdraw the proposed Plan Approval,” Robert Routh, Policy and Regulatory Attorney, Clean Air Council.
In its recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that global warming will reach dangerous levels if we don’t drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels much faster than we are. But after China banned proof-of-work cryptomining (the process Bitcoin uses), citing, among other things, the environmental threats that mining poses to meeting emissions reduction goals, the U.S. is now hosting many energy-intensive proof-of-work cryptomining operations. While these facilities of automated machines create few new jobs, they threaten the climate, in addition to small businesses, local economies, and natural resources. See, for example, Earthjustce and Sierra Club’s guidebook on this topic, The Energy Bomb: How Proof-of-Work Cryptocurrency Mining Worsens the Climate Crisis and Harms Communities Now.
Proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining is an energy-intensive process that requires thousands of machines whirring 24/7 to solve complex equations. The more machines that are running, the faster a coin is mined. Each one of these machines requires energy to run, plus more energy for cooling. Globally, Bitcoin mining consumes more energy each year than entire countries. In the U.S. alone, Bitcoin mining produces an estimated 40 billion pounds of carbon emissions each year. Fossil-fueled mining facilities can also be major emitters of local air and water pollution, as well as significant noise pollution for local communities.