Cryptocurrency Mining and Climate Change

When political leaders demonstrate the courage of their convictions, it’s immediately evident. Perhaps it’s because the authenticity shines through the usual political fog so brightly. All pretense drops, the language becomes direct and straightforward, and the clear meaning of their words rings out.

The most striking example recently of such leadership, one that has been both inspiring and breathtaking, is that of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He has not shied away from acknowledging the immense military odds stacked against Ukraine or downplayed the difficulty ordinary Ukrainians face. He has invoked a deep sense of common purpose and brought his country together.

Kathy Hochul sworn in as the 57th governor of New York. Photo by NY Senate licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In a different way and at a very different level, NY Gov. Kathy Hochul has a similar opportunity to demonstrate the courage of her convictions. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law in 2019, laid out aggressive benchmarks for New York to reduce its carbon emissions. Gov. Hochul has emphatically expressed her support for the CLCPA, proclaiming in her recent State of the State address that climate change is “a threat to our way of life, here and now.” She boldly called for a ban on the use of natural gas in new construction after 2027, the rapid development of offshore wind, and the phasing out of peaker plants—only used when excess energy is needed by the grid—as well as older fossil-fuel power plants.

Another closely related issue offers Hochul a similar chance to display bold leadership: imposing a statewide moratorium on proof-of-work bitcoin mining, a practice that poses a profound threat to the climate. Assemblymember Anna Kelles has introduced a bill that would place a three-year moratorium on proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining. The bill is currently making its way through the legislative process and has gained the support of 41 co-sponsors and 15 key committee chairs in the Assembly.

So far the governor has said very little about bitcoin mining, its environmental impact, or whether she supports a moratorium. It’s time she stepped forward.

Why is this action so critical?

Proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining consumes a tremendous amount of energy to operate the multiple, high-powered computers that validate the exchange of bitcoins as well as the cooling technology needed to keep the machines from overheating. In fact, a Cambridge University study concluded that bitcoin mining uses more electricity annually than the entire country of Argentina.

What is especially galling is that proof-of-work is only one way to mine cryptocurrency. “Proof-of-stake, another popular method, uses far less energy,” points out Yvonne Taylor, co-founder and vice president of Seneca Lake Guardian. But, she notes, proof-of-work’s energy use in the U.S. has grown 320% in just the past five years. New York, moreover, hosts nearly 20% of that.

Thanks to the work of Taylor and other environmentalists, attention in New York has focused on Greenidge Generation, a recently revived operation located on Seneca Lake. Formerly a coal-fired power station, it turned to natural gas when it reopened its doors. Originally intended to be a peaker plant, no one knew it would become a private bitcoin mining operation that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Greenidge’s Title V air permit is currently up for renewal, as discussed in our last issue. The decision on the renewal was due Jan. 31 but has been postponed to March 31 so that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) could “complete its ongoing review” of about 4,000 public comments on the case. As Peter Mantius reports, however, the delay provides Greenidge with the ability to expand its operations.

Under the CLCPA, the state is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030. The importance of doing so was underscored by today’s release of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that the pace of global warming threatens to overcome our ability to adapt to it. Greenidge is just one of many fossil-fuel power plants retired in upstate New York that could potentially be reopened for proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining; the possibility of Cayuga Power Plant going down this road punctuates the point.

If the bitcoin mining industry is allowed to continue growing without any oversight or regulation, the ability to achieve the CLCPA goals will be put in serious jeopardy. For the governor to be true to her word that climate change is a threat to our way of life, it’s clear what her next move must be: declare a moratorium on bitcoin mining.

Next Steps for the NYS Draft Climate Plan

The Climate Action Council, headed up by Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) President and CEO Doreen M. Harris, has just issued its draft scoping plan. Now it’s our job to review it carefully and respond. Beginning on Jan. 1, the public will have 120 days to offer comments and make sure their voices are heard.

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law in 2019, calls for New York to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent renewable energy generation by 2030, establish a zero-emission electricity sector by 2040, and create a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The CLCPA established the Climate Action Council, a 22-member committee charged with determining how to meet these statutory goals. The Council also consulted with a wide range of advisory panels and working groups over the past two years to address issues in areas such as transportation, solid waste, energy generation, workforce development, and climate justice.

A December 30 wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in suburban Denver, the latest dramatic sign of climate change. Photo by Tristantech licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The release of the draft scoping plan is the crucial first step in reaching the ambitious but necessary climate goals laid out in the CLCPA. There is certainly plenty of material for New Yorkers to wade through. The body of the report itself is 330 pages, followed by 520 pages of appendices. The Climate Action Council’s seven advisory panels – Transportation, Agriculture and Forestry, Land Use and Local Government, Power Generation, Energy Efficiency and Housing, Energy Intensive and Trade Exposed Industries, and Waste – submitted recommendations for the Climate Action Council to consider in the draft scoping plan, all of which can be found in the appendices.

In addition, the Climate Justice Working Group and Just Transition Working Group played key roles in the development of the draft scoping plan. The Disadvantaged Communities Barriers and Opportunities Report examines why some communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change and air pollution and have unequal access to clean energy, and recommends ways to rectify these problems using a climate justice lens. The Just Transition Working Group Jobs Study explores the consequences of climate change mitigation for the job market as well as actions required to provide adequate training, education, and workforce development.

The release of the draft scoping plan takes place against an increasingly dire climate crisis. The latest manifestation of this crisis is the Colorado wildfire that raced through suburbs between Denver and Boulder on Dec. 30, destroying at least 500 homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. Needless to say, December wildfires are not a common occurrence in Colorado, but a severe drought combined with high winds to fuel the most destructive blaze in the state’s history. Elsewhere, a new report has found unsettling evidence that the so-called “Doomsday Glacier” in Antarctica could collapse in as little as five years, raising the world’s sea level by several feet. The Thwaites glacier already loses 50 billion tons of ice each year and makes up about four percent of the planet’s annual sea rise.

The need to take dramatic and immediate climate action, then, is obvious. Although one of the most sweeping plans issued by any state or country, the NYS draft report leaves many specifics to be worked out. The broad outlines of any effective climate plan must include, as this one does, calls for the electrification of buildings, a shift to electric vehicles, the expansion of renewables such as solar and wind power, the development of feasible energy storage strategies, the decommissioning of natural gas, and the implementation of a carbon tax. But still unclear are the details and timing involved with setting these steps in motion, and how to do so in a way that takes into account historic inequities and brings about a just transition.

The draft scoping plan is now in the hands of Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature. It remains to be seen to what extent public input will influence the final shape of the plan, but it’s critical that New Yorkers weigh in. The final report will be issued on Jan. 1, 2023 and the DEC will then announce legally binding regulations by Jan. 1, 2024 to ensure that the state achieves the CLCPA’s required targets.

Information about how to participate in the public hearings on the draft scoping plan will be disclosed in early 2022, according to the press release issued by the Climate Action Council. There will be at least six hearings held across the state. In addition, comments can be submitted via the online public comment form, by email at scopingplan@nyserda.ny.gov, and by U.S. mail to Attention: Draft Scoping Plan Comments, NYSERDA, 17 Columbia Circle, Albany, NY 12203-6399. Stay tuned!