Electrical Workers Union Fights to Expand Fossil Fuel-Powered Crypto Mining in New York

The IBEW opposes a bill awaiting signature by Gov. Kathy Hochul that would put a moratorium on new fossil fuel power plants for the crypto industry.

Paige Oamek   ·   June 14, 2022
Workers at the Greenidge plant in Dresden, renovated to mine Bitcoin | Greenidge Generation

This story was co-published with The American Prospect.

New York’s 2022 legislative session ended earlier this month with little action on climate. Lawmakers punted on proposals to ban gas in new construction, authorize the state to build renewable-energy projects, scale back fossil fuel subsidies, and secure funding to achieve the state’s decarbonization goals. Climate advocates did have one victory to celebrate, however: The legislature voted to impose a two-year moratorium on new proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining powered by fossil fuels, combating an emerging threat to the state’s clean-energy goals.

But the bill still needs to make it past Gov. Kathy Hochul to become law. Once the bill is delivered to her by the legislature, which typically happens at a time of her choosing, Hochul will have ten days to sign or veto it. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who raised at least $200,000 from crypto donors between 2018 and 2021, is urging her to veto it. Hochul has floated delaying her decision until the end of the year, explaining that “we have a lot of work to do over the next six months.”

That gives crypto companies time to influence Hochul’s decision—and in the meantime to pounce on New York’s dozens of retired power plants, since the bill wouldn’t affect already-operating mining centers. But there is another powerful interest group working to stop the bill: key sections of organized labor.

The initial mining bill, introduced in May 2021, called for a three-year moratorium and a more sweeping ban of proof-of-work mining. When that bill died in the State Assembly last June, a staffer for its primary sponsor told The Block: “The roadblock was the unions.”

In particular, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which represents construction workers across the state who build and renovate crypto mining centers, has cultivated close ties with the industry and has condemned the moratorium in the past on the grounds of the economic opportunities it would foreclose. The state AFL-CIO also opposes the moratorium.

Hochul has echoed their concerns: “We have to balance the protection of the environment, but also protect the opportunity for jobs that go to areas that don’t see a lot of activity,” she said at a press conference last month.

Bill supporters counter that gas-guzzling power plants carry their own economic costs. Anna Kelles of Ithaca, who sponsors the bill in the Assembly, told New York Focus that the public should consider “the handful of jobs that are created by the [Greenidge] facility versus the jobs that can be threatened because of the facility,” citing the nearly 60,000 tourism industry workers in the Finger Lakes region affected by air, water, and noise pollution.

Not all unions oppose the moratorium. But the situation is just the latest to highlight an uncomfortable tension between labor and environmental interests.

An Upstate Crypto Mining Boom

Proof-of-work mining, pioneered by Bitcoin, verifies blocks of cryptocurrency transactions using specialized computers that compete to solve complex puzzles. The process consumes startling quantities of energy: Each Bitcoin transaction uses enough energy to power a U.S. household for 75 days.

New York has become a major force in crypto mining. In 2021, the state was home to 20 percent of the mining power in the United States, according to one estimate. Industry players have flocked to the state in search of shuttered power plants and manufacturing sites. The most notable renovation is a once-shuttered coal plant in the Finger Lakes region, now powered by natural gas and renovated to mine Bitcoin. In 2020, the facility emitted 220,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The bill passed by the legislature wouldn’t shut down the Greenidge plant, since its mining operations are already up and running. But it will prevent new power plants from being converted in the two-year moratorium period. In North Tonawanda, two hours west, a fossil fuel plant conversion project by Canadian company Digihost is also seeking approval before Hochul takes action. “There’s a trend,” Kelles said, adding that there are “two environmental justice communities within a half mile” of the Digihost plant.

The carve-outs haven’t stopped crypto interests from lobbying heavily against the bill. Gov. Hochul has pocketed $40,000 from Ashton Soniat, the chairman and CEO of Coinmint, a company that operates out of a former aluminum plant in Massena, New York. The company, which operates the plant using hydroelectric power, migrated from Plattsburgh, New York, after energy rates skyrocketed and the town became the first city to temporarily ban crypto mining.

A PAC funded by cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried recently donated $1 million to Hochul’s running mate, Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado, drawing heavy criticism from his challenger. A spokesperson for the PAC told the Albany Times Union that the contribution was based on Delgado’s record on pandemic preparedness, which the group says is its main priority in races across the country.

Disunion Among Labor

The cryptocurrency mining industry has promised to deliver jobs to decaying industrial towns, and unions are hoping to reap the benefits. According to former state Assemblymember Addie Jenne, who heads the IBEW’s legislative council, the union represents workers at both the Greenidge and Coinmint facilities. Jenne could not confirm how many union workers operate crypto facilities, but materials from the electric company that services the Greenidge plant stated last year that the facility had a workforce of “nearly 40 IBEW members.”

The crypto industry can “reignite” disinvested communities through jobs and taxes, Jenne argued, and “provide buzz to attract a certain type of workforce … and attract cluster economic development.”

The union has filed three memos in opposition to the moratorium. Last month, the New York State AFL-CIO chimed in, stating that the proposed legislation “circumvents and undermines the validity of the regulatory processes aimed at protecting our environment.” The IBEW has also conducted direct outreach to members of the legislature and the governor’s staff, Jenne said. And the IBEW New York PAC contributed $20,000 to Hochul’s campaign.

But labor isn’t unified on the issue. The influential 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East supports the moratorium. “There is no public benefit to New Yorkers for using large amounts of our valuable energy resources to generate profit for a small number of wealthy private equity investors,” the union said in a statement.

Nationally, IBEW members work in nearly every sector of the natural gas industry. Jenne said there need to be jobs in the fossil fuel sector for “several more years,” and that the union’s members “see fossil fuels as a likely bridge to the future.”

‘Blown Out of the Water’

The tensions highlight the lack of support New York has so far offered to workers affected by the energy transition. The original version of the state’s landmark 2019 climate law included a host of labor provisions, including a safety net for fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs, that were stripped out of the final bill. The state’s unions and climate justice advocates continue to push for those protections.

Another section of the crypto mining bill would also require the state energy department to evaluate the crypto mining industry’s impact on New York’s ability to reach the emissions reduction commitments. Kelles emphasizes the importance of this provision, arguing that the sheer magnitude of energy that cryptocurrency mining consumes “means that the estimates that we made for how much renewable energy infrastructure [the state needs may get] blown out of the water.”

Hochul’s move to delay regulating cryptocurrency mining is part of a pattern. She has already twice punted on a decision on the permits for Greenidge Generation, most recently extending a deadline until two days after her June 28 primary. The IBEW encourages the “department to swiftly complete its work and issue a Final Title V Air Permit for Greenidge.”

According to Kelles, there are approximately 49 retired plants in New York state that crypto companies could have their eyes on. “If they are saying that they’re part of the climate solution,” Kelles asked of the unions, “why are we fighting so hard to maintain access to fossil fuel-based power plants?”

Paige Oamek is a freelance journalist based in Chicago and an incoming editorial intern at The Nation. Their writing appears in In These Times magazine, and you can follow them on Twitter @paigehtml.
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