One scorching hot afternoon, Justin Ballard drives a Nissan Frontier pickup across a stretch of West Texas oil country. For years, Ballard worked these mesquite-covered expanses like any good oil landman, trying to persuade people to let the drill rigs come in and do their work. But he left that search early last year. Now he’s scouring the same barren landscapes for a different sort of fuel: natural gas that’s being burned off and wasted. This lost gas can be harnessed to power huge arrays of computers that create, or mine, Bitcoin and validate transactions on its ledger, the blockchain.
“It’s all about stranded energy—searching for it, finding it, mining it,” says Ballard, 41. “It’s a lot like the oil business.” In other words, instead of using drill rigs to get to oil deep underground, wildcat crypto miners sniff out surplus electricity to run the servers that work around the clock. The prize is a digital currency worth about $19,000. As with a barrel of oil, the consequences for the planet aren’t factored into the cryptocurrency’s price.