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Large energy consumers like cryptocurrency mining operations could face new regulations in Missoula County under emergency interim zoning that commissioners decided on Thursday to pursue.

The direction to Missoula County staff to pursue the emergency zoning options came shortly after the commission passed a resolution to become “carbon neutral” in its operations within the next 16 years.

“We adopted a climate resolution action today. Hopefully we’ll be adopting a 100 percent clean energy resolution next months,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “It seems to me to allow expanded or new cryptocurrency is the exact wrong trajectory and set us back toward achieving those goals.”

He noted that the commission balked last year at instituting some kind of moratorium on new or increased cryptocurrency operations, saying at that point they couldn’t justify the move as an emergency. But it’s now clear, he added, that addressing climate change is an emergency on a global scale, and they need to step up the local efforts immediately.

Last September, the commission put the moratorium on hold and directed staff members to look at the impacts and options. Those impacts include noise, electronic waste from used computers and energy consumption.

On Thursday, Cola Rowley, the commission chair, said she wants to be clear that they’re not looking at instituting a moratorium at this time. But she and the other commissioners said the emergency appeared more imminent after Diana Maneta, the county’s energy conservation and sustainability coordinator, explained how current energy use by cryptocurrency operations in Bonner could triple as the business grows.

“One large crypto mining operation uses the same amount of energy as one-third of the houses in Missoula County uses,” Maneta said. “They have stated their intention to triple its size, so it would use the equivalent of all of the residences in the county.”

Cryptocurrency mining often involves “Bitcoins,” which are intangible digital assets with values that vary from day to day, or even minute by minute. The cryptocurrency is “mined” by high-powered computers solving complicated mathematical problems.

When successful, the cryptocurrency is put on a public transaction ledger called a blockchain. Cryptographic puzzles are solved and new transactions are added to the blockchains about every 10 minutes. As more miners join the system, the puzzles become increasingly difficult and require more computing power, and more electricity, to solve.

The commission wants county staff to create potential zoning regulations that could alleviate or lessen the negative impacts from the cryptocurrency operations as a first step toward a longer-term goal of permanent zoning that could regulate industries that use a great deal of energy for long periods of time.

The county expects to have a public hearing on the emergency interim zoning proposals during its 2 p.m. public meeting on April 4 in the Sophie Moiese room at the Missoula County Courthouse.

Energy use by cryptocurrency operations was addressed during an earlier public hearing Thursday on the resolution, which passed unanimously, on Missoula County’s goal for carbon neutral operations by 2035. The county plans to establish a climate action team to work in conjunction with Missoula city officials to establish that goal.

As an interim measure, the county will try to reduce its 2016 level of greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2025.

“If Missoula County can make this a showcase example of trying to reduce energy conservation, this county and this state will send a message to the rest of the nation,” said Steve Loken, a Missoula area contractor, who added that all the conservation efforts in the past 30 years could be erased by cryptocurrency energy use in Montana.

Cryptocurrency operation supporters said that much of the energy being used at the Bonner facility comes from clean, renewable hydroelectric sources like Energy Keepers Inc. at the former Kerr Dam. They note that the noise problem in Bonner was greatly alleviated by installing new fans at the facility, and they try to recycle their electronic waste.

In addition, when the value of cryptocurrency dropped last December, so did the amount of energy being used as fewer miners were involved.

With the "carbon neutral" resolution, Missoula County joins more than 280 cities and counties, 10 states and nine tribes that have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global temperature rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2018 report on global warming based on more than 6,000 scientific studies, found that human activities already caused the Earth to warm by 1 degree Celsius. That’s the equivalent of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

The resolution notes that the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment found that impacts of climate change in northwest Montana, including Missoula County, will include “reduced low-elevation snowpack, earlier spring snowmelt, more frequent and intense droughts and wildfires, and impacts to agriculture and recreation."

“The severity of these impacts will depend on how rapidly global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced in the next decade,” Maneta wrote in request for commission action.

In 2016, Missoula County’s government operations was emitting about 7,583 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The county estimates that 46 percent of that comes from buildings and facilities; another 27 percent is from its vehicle fleet, followed by 19 percent in employee commuters and 8 percent by water and wastewater treatment facilities.

The 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 would put emissions to about 5,200 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Currently, Missoula County, the city of Missoula and Climate Smart Montana are in a planning process to identify the “greatest vulnerabilities in the face of climate change” and develop strategies to address them.

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