Democrats in NYS Assembly allowed IBEW to veto cryptocurrency moratorium bill to preserve union jobs at Greenidge

The union that represents about 40 contract electrical workers at Greenidge Generation’s power plant in Dresden last week derailed a bill that would have imposed a statewide moratorium on energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining, according to the bill’s sponsor.

Asked what killed the moratorium effort in the legislative session that ended June 10, Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca) said: “The unions, in the last three days. It was mostly IBEW.”

Kelles said Assembly leaders told her: “You can’t move this forward with union opposition. You need to solve that first before you can move this.”

A version of the bill (S6486) that applied the moratorium only to startups or expansions of energy-intensive, fossil fuel-powered cryptocurrency operations passed the state Senate by a vote of 36-27 on June 8. It never reached the Assembly floor for a vote.

The bill had threatened Greenidge’s plan to add thousands of Bitcoin mining devices in Dresden. The company had told potential investors it would more than quadruple Greenidge’s energy consumption to 85 megawatts by the end of next year as part of a Bitcoin mining program requiring 500 MW at various unspecified power plants by 2025.

That new power usage — first at Greenidge and then possibly at other fossil fuel plants converted to Bitcoin mining operations — would trigger enormous increases in greenhouse gases, Kelles said. And those new emissions would wreck the state’s chances of achieving the ambitious GHG cuts required under its 2019 Community Leadership and Climate Protection Act (CLCPA), she added.

Greenidge was acquired in 2014 by Atlas Holdings, which converted it from coal to natural gas power. It began testing Bitcoin mining rigs in late 2018.

Over the next several months, employees of Victor-based O’Connell Electric built the electrical infrastructure to support the installation of 7,000 Bitcoin processing machines or, “mining rigs.” That buildout required a “workforce of nearly 40 IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) members,” O’Connell wrote in a report on the project.

Before the Greenidge job, O’Connell Electric had previously worked on a large Bitcoin mining project in Massena, N.Y., which is housed in a former aluminum plant and powered by hydroelectricity. O’Connell’s CEO, Victor E. Salerno, told Engineering News-Record in November that while the company welcomes occasional Bitcoin mining jobs it doesn’t actively pursue them.

Salerno did not return phone calls Wednesday to discuss Bitcoin mining opportunities for his IBEW-member employees.

In the final week of this legislative session, Addie A. E. Jenne, IBEW’s legislative counsel, wrote a memo opposing the moratorium bill. Kelles said Jenne explained to her that 40 jobs were at stake but did not provide backup documentation.

The IBEW memo said the bill “circumvents and undermines the validity of the regulatory process aimed at protecting our environment and attaining the goals of the CLCPA.”

The memo said the state should be “embracing emerging technology, financial security and the job opportunities…” that cryptocurrency mining represents.

As Bitcoin’s price has soared over the past two years, new players have rushed into the market to cash in on mining the digital currency. (Mining rigs race competitors around the world to solve complex puzzles, with the winners authenticating transactions and earning a Bitcoin, currently priced at $37,750. For details on how it works, see here.)

But a backlash is growing against the mining rigs’ massive energy needs that inevitably cause GHG emissions spikes. China — home to half the world’s Bitcoin miners — is cracking down on Bitcoin traders and expelling many miners. One recent news report said Texas is vying to attract operators forced to flee China with promises of abundant wind and solar energy and light state regulation.

This spring EarthJustice and the Sierra Club warned New York State officials that a surge of Bitcoin operations here could be a catastrophic setback for CLCPA.

In an April 6 letter, they noted that as many as 30 other aged fossil fuel plants could be converted — Greenidge-style — to cryptocurrency mining. A week later, a Canadian bitcoin miner announced plans to acquire a gas-powered plant in North Tonawanda.

Without the moratorium, those Bitcoin operations now have brighter prospects. In fact, the share price of Greenidge’s intended merger partner, support.com, rallied sharply in the final 10 days of the legislative session as prospects for the moratorium dimmed. (Greenidge plans to become a public company later this year through a reverse merger with support.com.)

However, Greenidge faces another regulatory hurdle in renewing its Title V air permit, which expires in September. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has promised a “comprehensive and transparent review of its proposed air permit renewals with a particular focus on the potential climate change impacts and consistency with the nation-leading emissions limits established in the CLCPA.”

At a rally at the DEC’s Region 8 headquarters June 5, several environmental activists urged the agency to simply deny the renewal application. Kelles didn’t go that far, but she has insisted that the DEC require a public hearing on the renewal process “so that scientists, agri-tourism industry leaders, farmers, fishermen, neighbors, people focused on environmental justice can all weigh in on the impact of this (Bitcoin processing) expansion.”

She said she plans to reach out to union officials in the coming months and to continue to push her moratorium bill in the next legislative session. If they unions don’t budge, she said, she plans to go back to Assembly leaders and ask them: “Are you willing to jeopardize our entire agri-tourism industry in the Finger Lakes, with its 60,000 jobs and $2.9 billion in revenue, for 40 (cryptocurrency) jobs?”

Kelles said her amended moratorium bill will include a three-year time limit. The three-year provision had been a part of her original bill, but she removed it, she said, after being advised that it wouldn’t pass in the Assembly with a time limit. Instead, the lack of a time limit turned out to be a poison pill for the bill, Kelles said.

Other bills supported by environmental groups had mixed results in the latest legislative session.

The groups unanimously applauded the passage of a bill that requires all water systems — even the smallest ones — to test for 40 emerging contaminants, including several of the PFAS class of chemicals found in many household goods (A126-A).

But several other priority environmental bills failed to pass, and the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter pinned the blame on inaction in the state Assembly. Blasting the chamber’s “anemic agenda,” Roger Downs, the group’s conservation director, sent supporters the following statement June 17:

“Because of Assembly inaction, proposals died on the vine that would have protected more than a million acres of currently unregulated wetlands in New York (S5116), banned most applications of bee killing neonicotinoids, placed a moratorium on carbon-intensive cryptocurrency operations, established important energy efficiency standards, set the goal of protecting 30% of New York’s land mass for nature by 2030 and more. In addition, the Senate passed a package of bills that would address a host of environmental injustices plaguing our inner cities and communities of color. Failing to take up these bills felt especially heartless.

“The NYS Assembly used to be the environmental trendsetter in New York,” Downs continued. “It is difficult to explain how (Assembly) Speaker (Carl) Heastie and the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee could have had such an anemic agenda this year and why they failed to act on so many now stranded issues.”

Among those stranded issues was Kelles’ bill (A7768A) to require “mothballed” fossil fuel plants to surrender their licenses so that any restart efforts automatically trigger a new licensing process. She said she’ll push the measure again in order to prevent easy plant conversions to energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining.

Meanwhile, the state budget does include $500 million for water infrastructure projects and a $3 billion environmental bond issue that will go before voters in November 2022.

And earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill to enshrine environmental rights in the state constitution: “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

That constitutional amendment will appear on the general election ballot later this year, so voters have the final say.

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