ConocoPhillips is selling extra gas to bitcoin miners in North Dakota

Employees arrive at ConocoPhillips headquarters in Houston, Texas.

F. Carter Smith | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Oil and gas major ConocoPhillips is in the bitcoin mining fuel business.

The company said in a statement to CNBC on Tuesday that it has one bitcoin pilot project currently operating in the Bakken, a region in North Dakota known as an important source of new oil production in the US

A representative for ConocoPhillips said the company is not operating the crypto mine itself. Instead, it sells gas that would otherwise have been burned off to a bitcoin processor that is owned and managed by a third party.

Shares of ConocoPhillips are trading around 2.5% lower than of Tuesday afternoon.

The push into bitcoin mining dovetails with an initiative by the oil and gas major to reduce routine flaring, or burning off extra gas, to zero by 2030.

The company has published reports on efforts to phase out the practice of routinely flaring natural gas in the “Lower 48” states, which represents the largest segment in ConocoPhillips today, based on production. It is comprised of two regions covering the Gulf Coast and Great Plains – an area that includes the Bakken.

Co-locating a bitcoin mine to an oil and gas field is a huge help toward that goal, though it will not affect the company’s scope three carbon emissions, an industry term used to describe emissions that are a result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization.

For years, oil and gas companies have struggled with the problem of what to do when they accidentally hit a natural gas formation while drilling for oil. Whereas oil can easily be trucked out to a remote destination, gas delivery requires a pipeline. If a drilling site is right next to a pipeline, they chuck the gas in and take whatever cash the buyer on the other end is willing to pay that day. But if it’s 20 miles from a pipeline, drillers often burn it off, or flare it. That is why you will typically see flames rising from oil fields.

Beyond the environmental implications of flare gas, drillers are also, in effect, burning cash.

ConocoPhillips did not disclose to CNBC which bitcoin miner it sells to, nor how long the pilot project has been underway, but what typically happens is that a company like Denver-based Crusoe Energy Systems places a shipping container full of thousands of bitcoin miners on an oil well, then diverts the natural gas into generators, which convert the gas into electricity that is then used to power the miners.

The process reduces CO2-equivalent emissions by about 63% compared to continued flaring, according to research from Crusoe.

In a slide from a 2021 industry conference presentation by a ConocoPhillips leader, the company indicates that it has placed an “ongoing focus” on gas capture projects to achieve zero routine flaring of associated gas by 2025.

The slide shows photos of what appear to be bitcoin mines located on-site with a title that reads, “Compressed natural gas & digital currency beneficial use technologies.”

ConocoPhillips is one among many oil and gas companies operating in the Bakken. Others include ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, and EOG Resources.

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