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Exxon is selling its gas leaks to Bitcoin mines as electricity. It’s a novel—but dubious—solution to emissions

March 30, 2022, 10:14 AM UTC

ExxonMobil is running a pilot project where it sells industrial gas leaks as energy for Bitcoin farms, according to recent media reports.

Ordinarily, gas leaks, which occur when oil field drillers prick a natural gas reservoir, are burned off as gas flares—the curious jets of flame that illuminate oil fields. But Exxon, like many other oil producers, has pledged to eliminate “routine gas flaring” by 2030, to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Selling the gas leaks as a new energy source for crypto mining is a novel but dubious solution.

In some ways, crypto mining is an ideal customer for gas flare energy. Bitcoin mines are just large computer rigs that can be operated virtually anywhere and—if Bitcoin prices remain high—convert computing power into nearly-pure profit.

Mining rigs can be installed close to a gas flare, eliminating the need for building costly infrastructure (like pipelines) otherwise required to capture and channel the gas to where it can be used. Of course, by “converting” gas flares into electricity, the gas is still being burned. Natural gas is combusted to drive turbines, and that combustion still pumps carbon into the atmosphere.

Exxon, and other oil giants pursuing the same solution, are not so much eliminating gas flares as they are utilizing them. That is perhaps the most compelling argument for “converting” gas flares into electricity: the gas is being burned anyway, at least now it isn’t being wasted.

According to Crusoe Energy Systems, Exxon’s partner in its flare-to-electricity pilot project, combusting natural gas in a generator also produces less methane than simply flaring the gas would.

Natural gas is mostly methane and when methane combusts it produces carbon dioxide. According to Crusoe, flaring gas combusts roughly 93% of the methane, while Crusoe’s energy system combusts 99.89% of methane—thereby releasing more carbon dioxide but less methane into the atmosphere.

Methane is a more potent insulator than carbon dioxide so Crusoe says its system—which reduces methane emissions by roughly 7 percentage points—reduces CO2-equivalent emissions by 63% compared to flaring. That is good but, just on a technical note, is not the same as reducing CO2 emissions.

While converting gas flares into electricity at least makes use of otherwise wasted gas, I wouldn’t call it a sustainable solution to greenhouse gas emissions. At best, converting flares to electricity provides a valuable, mostly temporary patch for gas leaks. At worst, building a new industry around gas leaks creates a financial incentive for maintaining them.

Selling gas leaks instead of flaring them could also allow oil majors like Exxon to technically write down their own carbon emissions by shifting responsibility to their new customers, instead of genuinely eliminating the issue. On Exxon’s books, gas flares are Scope 1 emissions, which the company has loosely pledged to make net-zero by 2050. Gas for Bitcoin mines would be Scope 3 emissions to Exxon, which the company has not committed to neutralizing.

Eamon Barrett
eamon.barrett@fortune.com
@eamonbarrett49

CARBON COPY

Gas lines

The U.S. has committed to shipping an additional 15 billion cubic meters of liquified natural gas to the European Union this year to help the bloc wean itself off of Russian pipeline gas, which accounts for roughly 40% of the region’s gas imports. The EU wants to cut its Russian energy imports by two-thirds this year, which could reshape how LNG flows around the world, rerouting more U.S. exports to Europe and leaving Australia and Qatar to service Asia. WSJ

Fighting windmills

The EU has launched a case against the U.K. at the World Trade Organization over British subsidies for offshore wind farms, arguing that the subsidies favor companies using wind turbines sourced from the U.K. Providing domestic firms an advantage over foreign competitors breaches WTO rules on fair trade. Brussels’ complaint marks the first time the WTO has become embroiled in a post-Brexit trade dispute between the EU and its former member. FT

Heat and snow

Earlier this month, scientists recorded a heat spike in the Antarctic when the local temperature shot 70 degrees higher (in Fahrenheit) than the norm. Usually around this time of the year, temperatures at Concordia Station are around minus-56 degrees but, on March 18, hit an all-time high of 11 degrees (-11 degrees Celsius). The high temperature also coincided with an unusual snow dump further in land on the continent. “We’ve never seen the atmosphere behave like this over Antarctica,” one researcher said. NBC

Budget

Biden delivered his budget proposal for the year ahead on Monday, outlining a plan that would boost U.S. federal spending on climate and clean energy programs by roughly $45 billion. The proposal seeks to shore up spending on climate adaption by allocating funding to wildfire prevention and moves to bring forward the U.S. commitment to climate financing in poorer countries by a year. But the proposal is quiet on removing gas-guzzling cars from the road or decarbonizing power plants. NYT

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The U.S. is miles away from true energy independence, and it’s not because of oil by Will Daniel

Oil is entering a New World Order. Here are the big winners and losers by Bernhard Warner

A new EU partnership could triple U.S. exports of liquified natural gas by Shawn Tully

Texas has enough wind and solar power to phase out coal entirely. There’s just one huge catch by Tristan Bove

Climate groups say Bitcoin can be 99% greener with one key change. Here’s why it won’t happen by Taylor Locke

CLOSING NUMBER

1 trillion watts

The world will likely pass a milestone this year as—somewhere, sometime—someone installs a solar panel that pushes global solar capacity over 1 trillion watts, or 1 terawatt. Globally, the world consumes a total of about 18 terawatts of power. It will have taken decades since the first solar panel was invented in the 1950s for the world to install the first terawatt, equal to 1,000 gigawatts of solar energy. But, according to Bloomberg, the second terawatt of solar power capacity will be installed over the next four years as the world races to net zero.

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