Beyond the hype of billionaires tweeting in a Bitcoin frenzy is the environmental toll of the mining process, with insufficient data available on how it affects the environment at large scales. It's almost like interest in making money from bitcoin is greater than learning what bitcoin mining is making of the planet. But local events could place it into conflict with climate concerns.
Residents living near Seneca Lake in upstate New York say it has become "so warm you feel like you're in a hot tub", presumably from the heat of a crypto plant nearby, according to an initial NBC News report. The body of water, which is the largest of the Finger Lakes, serves as the coolant for roughly 8,000 bitcoin-mining computers humming away inside the Greenidge power plant.
UPDATE: Greenidge says nothing is wrong with Seneca Lake
Greenidge strongly disputed NBC's coverage of the purported effects of its Bitcoin mining on Seneca Lake. "The average daily temperature of the water leaving Greenidge from March 1st through April 17th of this year was 49.6 degrees — with just a 6.8 degrees average difference between intake and outflow, well below our permits. They have had zero impact on Seneca Lake," said a spokesperson in an email to IE. "The lake contains 3.81 cubic miles of water, which is 4.2 trillion gallons. 135 million gallons of discharge per day is 0.003% of the total lake's volume. Publicly available data clearly demonstrates the lake temps have been stable for years."
Bitcoin mining has drastically altered New York's Seneca Lake
It takes vast amounts of power to mine Bitcoin, and to keep the computing system operating at full speed, Greenidge is processing roughly 139 million gallons of water per day, with 135 million gallons deposited into Seneca Lake at high temperatures, sometimes reaching 108 degrees in the summer, and 86 during the winter, according to official permit documents.
However, Greenidge has no intentions of downsizing its Bitcoin mining operations. According to company CEO Jeff Kirt, "the environmental impact of the plant has never been better than it is right now," he said in the NBC News report. He added that Greenidge buys carbon offsets to negate its impact on the environment, but no public data supports this claim, and it seems the Bitcoin mining operations are having verifiable effects on the surrounding climate. In other words, the checks and balances of carbon offsets aren't mapping onto the real-world changes local residents have noticed happening to Seneca Lake.
Nascent industries may operate in climate 'gray zone' unchecked
Bitcoin mining power plants are operating in a logistical gray area, where permits are granted to firms who may not be required to back up their claims of ecological salience. A watchdog organization called Earth Justice has said Greenidge's carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions both rose by a factor of nearly 10 from January to December 2020, according to an Input report. The organization is taking action to drive the state of New York to reject the company's next permit renewal application, which is coming up in September.
In theory, Greenidge's Bitcoin mining operations could effect the climate to a degree that might keep the state of New York from reaching its emissions goals, according to Judith Enck, a former EPA administrator, reports Input. Whether or not this claim holds up, Greenidge aims to increase the scale of its mining equipment soon, regardless of the perceived impact of Bitcoin mining efforts on Seneca Lake. And its operating permits will probably be renewed again. But even outside of Bitcoin mining, it's becoming surprisingly easy for companies in nascent industries or markets that incur a heavy toll on the environment to dodge regulatory oversight in gray areas, sometimes while maintaining a brand of totalizing commitment to carbon-neutral goals. It's bizarre, but it's also probably not going to stop soon.
Correction: This article was updated to reflect the fact that the "hot tub" comment came from nearby residents.