Oil and gas giant Exxon is taking tentative steps in a new direction. No, it's not winding down fossil fuel extraction, which needs to be done, fast. Rather, the company is reportedly piloting a project to divert methane gas that would be flared and using it to mine cryptocurrency.
According to Bloomberg, Exxon has inked an agreement with Crusoe Energy Systems to use gas flared at some of a North Dakota oil drilling site to power mobile generators that keep servers mining bitcoin running. The pilot project launched in January 2021 and was expanded last July. Exxon is reportedly considering launching similar pilot projects in Alaska, Nigeria, Argentina, Guyana and Germany.
The entire mission of Crusoe is to “align the future of computation with the future of the climate,” by avoiding wasted methane gas inherent to routine flaring. It is backed by tech investor stalwarts like Bain Capital, the Winklevoss twins and Valor Equity Partners; the latter was the first institutional investor in Tesla.
The 18 million cubic feet of gas per month that the project utilizes otherwise would have been flared, i.e. burned off and sent straight into the atmosphere with no real use. This waste gas is comprised mainly of methane, a super-polluting greenhouse gas that's about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Crusoe has 20 portable engines permitted in North Dakota, per the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.
To be clear, the methane gas is still burned. It's just powering a crypto mining operation instead of getting dumped straight into the atmosphere. That's at least putting it to use, though whether it’s being put to good use is another matter. While I suppose any sort of use case is better than nothing, I would be a lot happier if we could stop devoting energy — in huge quantities — to something so utterly absent from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Bitcoin mining could also be a fossil fuel industry lifeline, providing a new source of revenue that can keep oil and gas flowing at a time when, as I have already pointed out, we absolutely should not be keeping the oil and gas flowing if we value a habitable climate.
While Exxon would not confirm the project’s existence on the record, spokeswoman Sarah Nordin said in an email to Bloomberg that the company continuously explores “emerging technologies aimed at reducing flaring volumes.” Of course, the best emerging technologies we have to reduce flaring are wind turbines, solar panels and other zero-carbon forms of energy. You know, technologies that would help ensure we no longer extract fossil fuels in the first place.