MISSOULA, Mont. — Missoula County commissioners asked the planning department to create a plan implementing interim zoning for cryptocurrency operations, allowing the companies to only exist in certain areas and requiring them to follow certain environmental guidelines, among other things.
They cited an environmental emergency Thursday at the public hearing where several people spoke in favor of the industry.
“I wonder if we’ve taken in the past too narrow a definition of what constitutes urgency or emergency as it relates to public health safety and public health, safety and public welfare because, arguably, addressing climate change is a real and pressing and imminent emergency on a global scale, and we’ve got to step up and do what we can,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.
Last fall, the commissioners looked at a possible moratorium but decided to table that while staff continued to research the impacts cryptocurrency mines have on the community.
Cryptocurrency -- like bitcoin -- is electronic. It’s mined by computers solving complex mathematical problems. The more people mining it, the harder the puzzles get. Miners are rewarded with new bitcoins proportional to the amount of computing power they donate to the network. That’s why bitcoin mines use a lot of computers and a lot of energy.
In Thursday’s presentation, Diana Maneta, energy conservation and sustainability coordinator, said cryptocurrency mining operations in Missoula County use as much electricity as one-third of the households in the county.
Dale Mahugh with NorthWestern Energy said the data centers the company has worked with have a vested interest in Montana. He said the two largest companies in Butte and Missoula paid to upgrade NorthWestern Energy’s facilities so they could accommodate the additional power loads.
“The very fact that, should these companies disappear, the rest of our customers benefit from that robust infrastructure that has been developed on their dime. So it’s a situation that they’re very vested in this, and they want to do a good job,” said Mahugh.
Commissioners expressed concerns with the level of energy consumption. In the same hearing, they had passed a resolution to get the county operations running without any carbon energy.
“We adopted this climate action resolution today. We’ll be adopting, hopefully, 100 percent clean electricity resolution next month, and it seems, to me at least, to allow expanded or new cryptocurrency operations in Missoula County will go in the exact wrong trajectory and in fact set us back in terms of achieving those goals,” said Strohmaier.
HyperBlock is a cryptocurrency company in Bonner. One resident who lives near there got up to express gratitude to the company for fixing a noise problem they’d had last year. An employee of the company, Jason Vaughn, also got up to talk and said emerging technology usually gets a lot of negativity in the beginning but wants people to research the industry before judging it to harshly.
“I’m somewhat disappointed about the interim zoning discussion. I do think that my client remains interested in sitting at the table and having discussions about how to address this impact in a regulatory manor, but I’m a little concerned about interim zoning and how quickly that would proceed and the affects but we’ll kind of see what they come out with as far as their proposed restrictions in the interim zoning capacity,” said Jaymie Bowditch, attorney representing HyperBlock, the cryptocurrency mine in Bonner.
One resident spoke in favor of the proposed zoning discussion.
“I think the challenge is to measure the benefits available from this energy consuming facility and incorporate those into some kind of zoning regulation. I think that’s what would be fair. It’s what the governments do for us. They protect us from environmental and social consequences that are unhealthy and not desirable,” said resident Gary Matson.
The county will address the interim zoning on April 4 with plans to make a permanent zoning law as well.
“If we’re going to allow it, they darn well, at the rate that they’re using energy, better be using renewable energy, in fact better be creating additional new renewable energy,” said Strohmaier.