Dirty Money: Emerging Cryptocurrencies & Morgantown's Secretive 'Science Center'
Jenna Ablak, India Bender, Olivia Berarducci, Seth Mullins, Evonni Tatum
Our physical world is continually shaped and reshaped by the Internet era's innovations. As anthropologists and responsible citizens, we must continually assess the ways these changes influence, affect, and change the world of stakeholders.
Manifestations of the Digital Era find their way into our mundane, everyday activities, but are not always welcome. Our group explored this sentiment in our research, which stands as an examination of public perception regarding Marion Energy Partners LLC's 'Science Center' proposal. The center itself has been under scrutinizing watch by concerned locals and grassroots organizations.
Issued March 7, 2022, the proposal outlines the intent to commence the hydraulic fracturing process, using pre-existing well pads in Morgantown Industrial Park. Concerned citizens approached Marion Energy Partners (MEP) and West Virginia's Department of Air Quality (WVDAQ) at a public hearing held in January, 2022. Each community member in attendance spoke in opposition to the proposal, citing anticipatory anxieties like ambient air quality, noise, and pollution.
Our research aims to understand the roots of community concern with anticipatory development, especially as it relates to the explosion of Bitcoin extraction, employing ethnographic methods and research as core principles. In short, our work examines the fears, doubts, and anxieties of anticipatory development of emerging industry.
Red pin drop on map indicates location of MEP's 'Science Center'
OVERVIEW OF METHODS
Olivia Berarducci and Jenna Ablak devised a structured questionnaire through Google Forms in February. The goal of the questionnaire was to gauge local perceptions and opinion toward MEP's development project. We shared the questionnaire with residents of the area following open, targeted, and convenience sampling methodologies. We began the distribution by printing out 25 documents with a QR code on it. We then took a trip to Westover where we put them on welcome mats, newspaper boxes, and wedged them into local businesses and apartment buildings. We also put it up on the Morgantown library cork board. This yielded little results, so we found Morgantown and Westover community-based Facebook groups where we posted it. We got 15 responses in one day, but after two months and continually reposting the questionnaire, we ended up with 127 responses.
1: PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF MARION ENERGY PARTNER'S SCIENCE CENTER
Jenna and Olivia composed a questionnaire to gain insight into public perceptions. The questionnaire was designed to examine the opinions individuals in the Morgantown and Westover areas have toward the alleged 'crypto' processing facility. The results of the questionnaire provided valuable insight into what feelings and anxieties community members held toward the proposal, if at all. We created a coding system to organize public opinion in the following section.
Note: This is a targeted questionnaire. Results do not represent those of a random sampling survey.
Results of Questionnaire (127 responses):
Did not know about the facility before questionnaire: 2
Knew about before questionnaire: 4
Did not know about the facility before questionnaire: 3
Knew about before questionnaire: 4
Did not know about the facility before questionnaire: 3
Knew about facility before questionnaire: 7
Did not know about the facility before questionnaire: 10
Knew about facility before questionnaire: 19
Did not know about the facility before questionnaire:19
Knew about facility before questionnaire: 56
Based off of the initial question, asking if the participants knew about the proposed facility in Morgantown Industrial Park, 90 people responded that they had heard about it previously and 37 of the questionnaire takers said they had not heard of the proposed crypto-mining facility. The questionnaire is showing indication of more people in opposition in some capacity rather that support for the crypto-mining facility.
Overall the people who did support the crypto-mining facility in some capacity believed that the economic pros out weighed the cons. They also felt pride that Morgantown has always been a mining community and took offense to the questionnaire. Some of these people even resorted to insulting us because they did not agree with the purpose of the questionnaire or its specific questions. There were two categories among the people who had neutral opinions. The first category consisted of those who needed more information on the facility before they could form a solid opinion. The second category consisted of those who did not care about the facility and were mad about the questions we asked. Some examples of opinions were, "Very happy. I'm glad West Virginia, especially near my neighborhood, is embracing the future of crypto currencies; I want to do more research about it. This is the first I have heard of it; This is West Virginia, coal is part of our heritage; All for it as long as they are paying taxes."
The questionnaire takers that were opposed to the crypto-mining facility in some form or another felt very strongly about their opinion. There were multiple residents who are concerned for their physical well-being due to pre-existing health conditions. For example one resident said, "We are a family of asthmatics. Before moving to WV no one in my family had lung issues." Others responses were simple and to the point opinions that were expressed as, "bad, angry!, not good, concerned, keep out," etc. Some respondents felt that the "one percent" were taking advantage of them; "my politicians and local leaders have let me down. I will leave the city if this happens." Lastly, there were residents who plainly oppose crypto-currency; "Crypto-currency is a scam that ruins the environment and everything it touches."
Connecting our research to Sangaramoorthy et al.,2016:
Thurka Sangaramoorthy and colleagues published a study on the impacts of fracking titled, "Place-based perceptions of the impacts of fracking along the Marcellus Shale." They focused on the link between three health impacts of fracking. These include social disruption, environmental impacts, and health outcomes. This article emphasizes, "While these findings cannot be generalized to other communities... they can be helpful in understanding the role of place and psychosocial stress in understanding the potential health impacts of fracking in other communities facing similar issues," (Sangaramoorthy et al., 2016). Based on this quote, it is clear that our research is useful to the broader anthropological community. Focusing on the health impacts stated above was a large part of our research as well. Through our questionnaire we were able to gain insight into where people live, and to learn of their opinions on crypto. We can see that neighbors strongly disagree with each other, which causes a divide within the community. Most people were deeply concerned for the environment and some even had existing health problems. We saw many responses asking for more information on the matter to fully form an opinion. While crypto currency is not widely understood, it is important to start the conversation somewhere, such as, a small capstone classroom.
Source: T. Sangaramoorthy et al. / Social Science & Medicine 151 (2016) 27e37
2: Municipal Mundanities
January 11, 2022. DEP Public Comment Meeting
After learning of the proposed Science Facility, I attended a virtual Department of Air Quality (WVDAQ) meeting where community members had the opportunity to express air-quality concerns. Right off the bat, the mayor of Morgantown, Jennifer Selin, expressed her discomfort with the rapid permitting process—she felt that the city and its constituents did not have a fair chance at civil procedure. Mayor Selin also provided critiques of Marion Energy Partner's (MEP) proposed development project: “This permit does not specify the methods, the industry it’s operating in, or the regulatory practices of whatever industry it is. Marion Energy needs to work toward transparency. I’d like to see the proposal made more specific."
3: Hydraulic Fracturing's Emerging Connection to Cryptocurrency
In a world as newly founded as cryptocurrency, we should expect rapid change. When popular cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin first began to gain public notoriety, the methods of acquiring said currency were different and far less diverse than what we find today. It was not uncommon to find relatively small operations "mining" small amounts of the currency at a slow clip, however this was prior to the boom we have seen in cryptocurrency, during which the means of mining cryptocurrency have become far more complex and of considerably larger size. By no means is this a statement that smaller "crypto" operations are not still prevalent, but there is no denying that the game has changed. Big spenders, whether they be companies or wealthy individuals, are involved in cryptocurrency more than ever before, and with this influx of traditional currency being spent to mine the new decentralized currency, the methods of acquisition seemingly change on a whim. There is no exact method of mining cryptocurrency, however there are areas of intrigue just beyond the horizon that may shape the way that crypto investors seek their results.
What is cryptocurrency and where does it come from?
There is no singular answer for what cryptocurrency is. At its core, cryptocurrency is a decentralized currency, meaning that it relies on nothing other than itself and the consumer that uses it to maintain its value. This differentiates cryptocurrency from other "traditional" currencies such as the US dollar or Euro, as those are backed via governments and banking systems. Bitcoin, for example, does not require a middle-man to be transferred between users, as it uses it own transfer system. There is high variability between these currencies, with Bitcoin being by far the most popular and valuable. This variability extends through their uses, availability, and the means by which they are acquired.
For the sake of brevity, we can discuss the means by which Bitcoin is "mined". Bitcoin is not mined in the traditional sense, as there is nothing physical to obtain. Bitcoin mining rather refers to a complex mathematical system by which new coins are added to circulation. In an attempt to explain an exceedingly complex topic, we can think of it in this way: there are bitcoin codes waiting to be discovered, and successfully mining one of these codes means that you have successfully acquired a bitcoin. This is different than exchange of bitcoin in which someone would pay USD, for example, in exchange for some amount of bitcoin, rather these bitcoins are not yet in circulation prior to them being mined. The mining process itself requires a significant amount of computing, and by consequence energy power, running constantly in order to find these nearly random sequences of code. Once the code is found, this can be quite lucrative. However, in the midst of the search for these codes, these computers are running with essentially no purpose other than to input sequences of code in hopes of finding a bitcoin. These are not standard computers either. These are top of the line computers with far more computing power than your laptop or desktop computer. This being the case, they require an enormous amount of energy power, posing the question: Where does this power come from?
In powering computers allocated to cryptocurrency mining, there is a vast need for electricity. This has traditionally been done using more widespread forms of producing electricity. Bitcoin mining is by far most prevalent in China and India, which both produce considerable coal, thus making coal the primary energy power source. However when we consider coal's decline, there is need to replace it. Environmental regulations are beginning to take hold even in countries that are notorious for their lack of environmental concern, and thus a replacement has been needed. This is where hydraulic fracturing comes into play. In India and in the United States, fracking has begun to become a viable option for accumulating the necessary energy power for these computing systems. Natural gas is far less regulated than coal or oil, and is cleaner than both of these fossil fuels, thus making it ideal for investors looking to start mining cryptocurrency without the backlash that comes with such a polluting activity. The issues that arise here are often more directly linked with human communities than coal or oil. Fracking is notorious in its ability to upset local communities, whether it be from the constant work and noise that accompanies the gas wells, or from the potential health effects that are sometimes seen in areas immediately surrounding wells. These concerns have not stopped investors from becoming immersed in both cryptocurrency and hydraulic fracturing as it continues to become more prevalent with each passing day.
4: Interviews with Officials and Community Members
To accurately build an understanding of how community members felt about the data mining center coming to Morgantown, Evonni conducted informal interviews with the Chief Communications Officer from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), the Project Engineer from the WVDEP/Division of Air Quality, and an individual that works at the State Capitol Building in Charleston. These interviews were conducted with a set of questions that were key in understanding the individuals' knowledge of data mining/fracking/bitcoin mining while also allowing them to explain their position/opinion.
Questions Proposed During Semi-Structured Interviews
Ed Andrews, Project Engineer for WVDEP/Division of Air Quality
While conducting the interview with Ed Andrews, he explained that his job is centered around the permittance of stationary air pollution. The acts that he focuses mainly on were the Air Pollution Control Air (WV State Act) and the Clean Air Act (Federal Act). He and others at the WVDEP make sure that there is an enforcement of rules and regulations. In order to make sure that I had a clear understanding of the federal register, Ed Andrews sent me four sites that I will tag below.
Terry Fletcher, Chief Communications Officer WVDEP
Terry Fletcher begins by explaining his career and explaining what the WVDEP does. He explains that the agency is "charged with protecting our state's air, land, and water by enforcing all applicable state and federal environmental regulations". The specific office that Terry works at is the Office of Oil and Gas and their main focus is to regulate oil and gas activity for the state of WV.
As a part of the WV OOG, Terry has a responsibility to monitor and regulate the actions in relation to exploration, drilling, storage, and production of oil and natural gas. Terry goes on the rest of the interview to explain as a whole what the WVDEP does, not just him. As an agency, the WVDEP's main purpose when it comes to the fracking industry as a whole is to protect the human health and the environment that we live in.
Terry informs me that the Marion Energy Partners submitted a permit application to the WVDEP's Division of Air Quality (DAQ) which explained the construction and operation of the data processing center that consisted of four natural gas-fired engines. These engines are key in generating electric power to the facility. These engines are the only aspect of the facility that the DAQ has regulation over. The DAQ's jurisdiction begins and ends with the emission sources and has no jurisdiction over regulation or permittance of how the facility will use the electricity it generates.
Evan Hansen, WV State Delegate, 51st District Mon County
Back in 2013, Hansen was concerned with the WV State Law and a need for the improvement of data collection and the reporting requirements of the environmental waste in relation to fracking. He believes that there was increase in pollution levels due to water issues and oil and gas development. The Office of Oil and Gas has a lack of staff for oil and gas inspectors, which is contributing to the lack of accurate monitoring and regulation in the environment.
Focusing on Morgantown Specifically
Appalachians from Ohio to Pennsylvania to West Virginia are no strangers to the unfairness of the effects of hydraulic fracking on the environment. For Morgantown residents, they also are experiencing a lack of communication, transparency and understanding. A recent study (Carlson and Caretta 2021) asked residents of rural Appalachia to describe their experiences of living with fracking and gas development infrastructure. The effects of endless miles of pipeline development infrastructure altered the landscapes in these areas, posing threats to health and safety, ecology, property, land, air and water quality, and bringing about nuisances like noise, and fears of more devastating consequences such as spills and explosions. They overwhelmingly generated among respondents a general sense of fear and anxiety. For Morgantown residents facing this new "Science Center," they too fear for their future. They have to worry about many of these same issues, particularly potential point and cumulative sources of contamination, air emissions, water pollution, accidents and spills, and an almost certain and unregulated noise pollution.
Citation: Carlson, Erin Brock and Martina Angela Caretta, "Living with Natural Gas Pipelines: Appalachian Landowners Describe Fear, Anxiety, and Loss," The Conversation February 3, 2021. https://theconversation.com/living-with-natural-gas-pipelines-appalachian-landowners-describe-fear-anxiety-and-loss-152586
Pictures of the Environmental Health and Justice group hard at work
Photographer: Jenna Ablak
Not pictured: Evonni Tatum