Despite pleas for a one-year emergency moratorium on new or expanded cryptocurrency operations, Missoula County Commissioners decided on Thursday instead to have staff members investigate how to address the impacts — including energy consumption, noise and electronic waste — of this and other industries.
The unanimous decision came after about a dozen people testified during the second half of a public hearing that was suspended in June to give staff more time to consider various options. Jenny Dixon with the county planning department noted that of about 80 written comments received from 71 individuals, 92 percent supported the moratorium.
However, Jaymie Bowditch, an attorney for the company that handles the cryptocurrency operations in Bonner, reminded the commission that in order to approve the one-year moratorium using interim zoning, they had to show an imminent threat to public health or safety. By extending the public hearing for three months, it showed that no immediate danger was posed.
“We appreciate a lot of the concerns expressed at the two public hearings, but a lot of those concerns are at the macro level,” said Bowditch, the attorney for Hyperblock Technologies, the parent company of Project Spokane. “We appreciate the differences in opinion on whether there is a societal benefit. But when you’re talking about options like the interim zoning, you don’t have the legal ability or right to make that decision.”
During the June public hearing, about 75 people crowded into a room in the County Courthouse Annex to hear two hours of presentations and testimony about a proposed one-year ban on new or expanded cryptocurrency activity in Missoula County. The comments at that hearing generally were split in support of or opposition to the proposed moratorium.
About half as many people showed up to Thursday’s hearing. However, the vast majority of the testimony focused on concerns that the large amount of energy needed to mine bitcoins — not just at the Bonner facility but throughout the world — is so intensive that it may drive up rates for other consumers. A related concern was that also could prompt a return to using more dirty energy to produce electricity, including coal.
Brian Fadie with the Montana Environmental Information Center noted that in one community, electric bills increased by $100 per month “after cryptocurrency came in and sucked up the low-cost hydro power.”
“And that higher load may be here literally one day and not the next,” Fadie said. “The loads are mobile and transient, potentially stranding the costs to other members if the company leaves unexpectedly.”
Bitcoins are the most popular of about 1,200 types of cryptocurrency, which are intangible digital assets with values that vary from day to day. 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, according to Diana Maneta, the county’s energy conservation and sustainability coordinator. As more miners join the system, the puzzles become increasingly difficult and require more computing power, and more electricity, to solve.
Montana and the Pacific Northwest are popular with cryptocurrency miners because the climate helps cool the hundreds of computers needed for large operations, and the cost of electricity is fairly low. Still, the amount of energy consumed to create bitcoins is equivalent to as much electricity as the average American household burns through in two years, according to the New York Times. In addition, fans that cool the computers doing the mining can be loud — new blades were installed on the 400 fan in Bonner to quiet the noise — and the operations can create a lot of electronic waste products as computers are switched out.
“We want a moratorium so we can figure this out,” said Amy Cilimburg with Climate Smart Missoula. “There are options to help level the playing field in light of the pollution burden that’s out there.”
Commissioner Jean Curtiss said she understood the concerns, but the county doesn’t have the authority that the state or cities may have to regulate one industry using the interim zoning. Instead, she recommended that they “operate more globally” and not target just the cryptocurrency facilities.
Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Cola Rowley agreed.
“We are talking about the impacts themselves, not necessarily crypto mining as an industry — the noise, e-waste, possible excessive use of electricity that threatens our planet," Strohmaier said. "It may be that we need a much broader approach because of the potential this would be myopic. But I do have serious concerns about the energy use.”
Many of those opposed to the activity were Bonner residents, who live near a large facility where Project Spokane has set up a bitcoin mining operation. They voiced concerns about the noise generated by the fans, as well as possible increased greenhouse gas emissions from the operations.