For much of March, rumors flew in crypto back channels that The New York Times was working on a major new exposé on cryptocurrency. It would, of course, focus on the only crypto topic the Times is truly interested in: the massive, apparently catastrophic energy cost of bitcoin mining.
That rumored hit piece arrived on Sunday, April 9, and it is profoundly strange. Its actual findings are stretched to fit a conclusion handed down, it seems clear, from the newspaper’s higher-ups. On its face, the piece is almost comically incoherent, but that very incoherence highlights its real message: Bitcoin is bad because we say it is.
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While the headline grandly declares it will expose “The Real-World Costs of the Digital Race for Bitcoin,” the bulk of the article’s factual findings seem to describe failures in a specific load-balancing incentive program in Texas. The program is offered by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, and is available to customers in any industry. The Times piece seems to take issue only with its use by bitcoin miners.
In the course of this critique, the report repeatedly indulges in wild non-sequiturs, some almost surrealistic in their juxtaposition of bitcoin (BTC) mining with unrelated negative events – “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”
Put another way, this is journalism as an exercise in raw power: throwing disconnected facts under a tendentious headline and calling it a day.
Let’s talk about real problems
To be clear, I agree the Bitcoin network’s energy consumption, and energy consumption model, are less than ideal. The real problem – one not addressed directly in the Times’ piece – is that bitcoin mining has no inherent upper bound. In theory, it could spiral ever higher, though in practice it is reined in by real-world economics.
More generally, it would be great if Bitcoin used a lot less electricity, and that all of that power was zero-carbon. But that’s true of literally everything else in human life that uses power, which is ultimately where all these bitcoin mining hit pieces break down. The truth is many critiques of bitcoin mining are not critiques of power consumption, or their exclusive targeting of bitcoin would be obviously nonsensical. Instead, these pieces all rely on the implicit but unstated argument that Bitcoin has no fundamental utility. This unstated premise is intended to sneak entirely past readers’ critical defenses, as taken-for-granted as oxygen.
I further want to be clear that I respect the investigative work done by reporters and researchers here. They deliver some interesting facts and insights. But those were seemingly not enough to satisfy the agenda of Times higher-ups: Based on the text, it seems likely reporters were pressured to reshape their reporting into something it is not.
This is suggested by the bizarre opening anecdote, which recounts a Feb. 14, 2021, incident when the Texas power grid was struggling under the load of a winter storm. The apparent crime being recounted – the cardinal sin committed by bitcoin miners in this dire situation – was that they turned off so that more Texans could heat their homes.
Texas’ bitcoin miners turned off at this key moment at the request of Texas electrical authorities, and in compliance with one of a few load-balancing programs available to industrial Texas power customers (Bitdeer first signed an agreement with ERCOT in 2021). Anyone in the program can collect a fee for curtailing peak energy usage. In this case, a Bitdeer facility collected $18 million over four days.
The article’s sweeping claims that “the public pays the price” for bitcoin mining largely hinge on this single state program. The article’s problem with bitcoin mining, if you can really call it that, appears to be that miners are too good at doing the thing that the Texas incentives are designed to encourage – turning off at times of peak load.
The point of those incentives is to keep the entire grid healthy, but the article frames it as some sort of nefarious manipulation. More to the point, it uses an isolated, in fact quite unique example – Texas – to support much broader claims that the Bitcoin network is raising energy prices across America.
This exemplifies the basic problem with the piece. The reporters may have uncovered genuine questions about the structure of incentives available to large-scale power customers in Texas. Maybe they’re unfairly lucrative for bitcoin miners compared to customers that can’t switch off as quickly or completely. But instead of addressing a real issue, this finding has been manhandled to support the (in fact non-falsifiable) argument that bitcoin mining consumes too much energy.
Notably, the piece does not meaningfully explore why the Texas program is structured the way it is in the first place. I’m not going to do their homework for them, but it seems reasonable to assume it is because Texas’ power grid, overseen by ERCOT, is a technical and regulatory basket case. It is held together by bailing wire and duct tape after decades of libertarian deregulation that led public and private power companies to starve their systems of investment, both in halted expansion and deferred maintenance.
The Texas power grid is also uniquely isolated from the rest of the U.S. electricity grid. This suggests the price effects documented by the Times would be more acute in Texas than elsewhere because the Texas grid cannot access backup electricity across state lines. This unique feature of the Texas power grid is not mentioned a single time in an article purporting to be a deep analysis of its workings.
It’s the kind of system that requires you to pay customers for not using it too much. A truly daring thinker might argue that’s the real problem here.
A thought-terminating exercise
The piece’s methods for covering over this kind of logical failure are bizarrely slapdash, as entries in this genre go. Let’s look particularly at the conclusion. This is one of the strangest closing paragraphs to a news or investigative article I have ever read.
The clear goal here is to associate the Bitdeer bitcoin mine with the decline of Rockdale, but the framing is brazenly untruthful and clumsily delivered. Elsewhere, the article alludes to the fact that bitcoin mines don’t create a lot of jobs, but this paragraph seems to imply that the mining facility is somehow to blame for the departure of an aluminum smelter that “closed more than a decade ago.”
That is, the smelter quite likely closed before Bitcoin was invented. It is certainly sad that this “cut the legs out of the community.” But in what possible way is that relevant to the story being told here about bitcoin – other than to emotionally manipulate readers into associating the two?
This is, as presented, just sloppy writing – if I were editing this piece, I would draw a big angry red line, or its Google Docs equivalent, around this paragraph. But I don’t think that’s the kind of rigor editors brought to bear here: More likely, they nudged this tortuous malapropism into existence.
Extra! Extra! Demand for electricity raises the price!
I’m not here to drag you through a point-by-point rebuttal of the Times piece, but let’s look at one more example of the word games being played here by America’s paper of record.
This paragraph exemplifies the tendentious nature of this piece – that is, the fact that while it is fact-based reporting, its real goal is to advance an agenda. In this paragraph, the piece pursues its agenda by finding the most maniacal, ominous-sounding possible way to describe “being an electricity consumer.”
“Putting immense pressure on the power grid” is another way of saying “buying lots of power.” “Finding novel ways to profit” from buying power is another way of saying “running a business that uses electricity to operate and/or participating in the energy market.”
See also: David Z. Morris – We Can Use as Much Energy as We Want, Forever | Opinion
The most brazenly disingenuous claim here is that bitcoin miners create “higher electricity bills … for everyone around them.” This is another way of saying “purchasing electricity in a capitalist economy results in higher prices for other consumers.” When I turn on my toaster, I am also in fact creating higher electricity bills for everyone around me.
That’s how all of this works, guys.