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Lawmakers explore Bitcoin mining efficiency, broader crypto policy issues during Congress hearing

While we are unlikely to see immediate policy effects of the exchange, legislators got educated on a wide array of blockchain-related concepts and issues.

On Jan. 20, the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee of the U.S. Congress House Energy and Commerce Committee convened a hearing to investigate the environmental effects of cryptocurrency mining. Despite the narrow focus, the conversation that ensued – which many industry experts appraised as a meaningful educational experience for the lawmakers – touched upon a range of blockchain-related issues and themes beyond energy consumption. Here is how it went down, and what comes next.

Witnesses set the frame

Following the opening remarks, the hearing kicked off with the witnesses delivering their testimonies. Bitfury CEO Brian Brooks made a point that it was up to the market to decide on the most productive ways to use the already produced energy and maintained that proof-of-work (PoW) is the consensus mechanism that is best suited to produce true decentralization of a blockchain network.

In contrast, Cornell Tech professor Ari Juels, while speaking favorably of blockchain technology and Bitcoin (BTC) in particular, maintained that proof-of-work is unnecessarily wasteful while the downsides of the alternative proof-of-stake, or PoS, mechanisms are largely theoretical.

John Belizaire of Soluna Computing stated that Bitcoin’s energy consumption should be seen as a feature rather than a bug because crypto mining can create efficiencies by using the excess renewable energy. Steve Wright, a former general manager of a public utility district in Washington state, shared his experiences of interacting with crypto miners who flocked into the area due to abundance of cheap electricity, while former acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury Gregory Zerzan introduced multiple uses of blockchain technology and said that regulatory uncertainty could hurt its development.

Representatives then took to the floor with statements and questions. A few used their time for partisan attacks and political grandstanding, yet most made an honest effort to ask questions that either tackled the energy-related issues at the core of the hearing or sought broader context on the uses and potential applications of blockchain technology.

Getting to the bottom of crypto mining

Committee chair Frank Pallone and Oversight Subcommittee chair Diana DeGette interrogated the witnesses on how wasteful crypto mining really is and how to make sure that communities do not bear the costs of energy consumption upticks caused by miners. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky expressed her concerns about the use of fossil fuels to power mining rigs. Witnesses responded by reassuring the lawmakers of the overall green trend in which the mining industry is evolving, particularly in the U.S.

Some Representatives sought to get a better understanding of the efficiencies generated by cryptocurrency mining in order to determine whether they justify the associated energy use. Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers inquired about the larger blockchain industry’s capacity to generate new jobs and protect user data.

Florida Representative Neal Dunn showed off some advanced knowledge of Bitcoin economics when he asked Brian Brooks about the relationship between BTC halving and mining efficiency. Dunn also stated that the nation needs to produce more energy anyway, and powering innovative industries such as crypto mining is a good use of this growing capacity.

Congressman Morgan Griffith explored the geopolitical aspect of Bitcoin mining, concluding with a supposition that China’s mining ban resulted not so much from energy efficiency concerns but rather from the Chinese government’s dislike of the idea of decentralization. The resulting exchange with Gregory Zerzan resulted in the witness stating that “Bitcoin equals freedom, and there are a lot of places in the world that don’t like freedom.”

Industry reception

While the hearing did not come across as a massive breakthrough, most industry observers highlighted the educational component of the exchange, as well as its role in moving the policy conversation around crypto mining forward.

In an interview with Cointelegraph after the hearing, witness John Belizaire said that the committee members’ readiness to thoroughly explore the complex matter at hand has rendered the discussion productive:

"Chairwoman DeGett set the right tone from the very beginning, the tone of ‘we are here to learn.’ Representatives asked good questions and wanted to get educated on these problems."

Belizaire added that he was surprised by some questions related to the possibility of using less environmentally friendly energy sources to power Bitcoin mining in the future, saying that “You have to put it into the context of the global movement taking on climate change.”

John Nahas, vice president of business development at Ava Labs, the company behind smart contracts platform Avalanche, noted that the hearing, having started slow, eventually evolved into a “meaningful conversation.” Nahas commented:

"It’s clear to me that legislators are seeing the value of blockchains. It was refreshing to see that they understand the numerous areas, like health care records and energy management, that will make our lives more efficient and secure."

John Warren, CEO of U.S.-based Bitcoin mining company GEM Mining, said that the hearing was “an important step in educating U.S. lawmakers on the benefits of the rapidly growing cryptocurrency industry, and mining in particular.”

Consonant with Belizaire’s testimony and some of the Representatives’ comments, Warren believes that the migration of mining activity into the U.S. is a favorable scenario in terms of reducing the industry’s environmental impact:

"Greater oversight in America, coupled with ongoing innovation, will ensure U.S. companies lead the way in taking steps to operate as efficiently as possible and thereby further reduce mining's environmental impacts."

Policy implications

While nothing about this hearing was particularly groundbreaking, the effects of such interactions between Congress and the industry tend to compound. It is consequential that over time, elected officials across a varied set of specialized committees – and not only those engaged in financial oversight – get exposure to pro-blockchain industry rhetoric and arguments.

In the near-term, however, this interaction shouldn’t be expected to result in any specific legislation.

Ava Labs’ Nahas commented:

"This was mostly informational and the early stages of any policy process. However, policymakers should continue to engage with experts and objective resources to better understand emerging blockchains and their ability to secure billions of dollars in value while consuming just a small fraction of proof-of-work chains."

Still, the arguments that were raised around decentralization, the dangers of overregulating the crypto space, and various efficiencies that blockchain technology can engender will stick with at least some of those who participated in the hearing, adding to their long-term policy vision.

‘Surgical removal’ of crypto will only weaken USD dominance, commentators say

Former pro-crypto CoC Brian Brooks to testify in a House hearing on the energy impacts of mining

Crypto allies dominate the list of witnesses slated to appear before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

As the U.S. Congress prepares to take a thorough look at the energy use of crypto mining, the list of witnesses for the Thursday hearing contains more proponents of blockchain technology than its outright critics.

The House Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee announced a hearing on “Cleaning Up Cryptocurrency: The Energy Impacts of Blockchains” last week, with the event itself scheduled for Thursday. The focus of the hearing will be on the energy and the environmental effects of crypto mining, specifically as it relates to networks that use a proof-of-work, or PoW, consensus mechanism.

A Committee on Energy and Commerce staff memo released on Jan. 17 revealed the list of witnesses invited to testify. Among the five experts on the list, only one — Cornell Tech professor Ari Juels — can be definitively categorized as an outspoken critic of Bitcoin (BTC) mining in its current form. Ironically, Juels is one of two authors of a 1999 paper that defined and introduced the term “proof-of-work.”

Another entry on the witness list is Brian Brooks, former U.S. Comptroller of the Currency and Binance.US CEO who in Nov. 2021 joined BitFury, a major player in the crypto mining industry, as CEO. Also notable is the presence of John Belizaire, CEO of Soluna Computing, a firm that is focused on developing green data centers for batchable computing. In a Jan. 6 blog post, Belizaire lauded Bitcoin’s energy consumption as a “feature, not a bug,” arguing that it provides a viable mechanism for absorbing excess renewable energy.

Utility providers will be represented by Steve Wright, a recently retired former general manager of the Chelan County, Washington state, public utility district. During his tenure, Wright took steps to attract cryptocurrency miners to the county.

Gregory Zerzan, Jordan Ramis shareholder and former acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury, once noted that concerns around Bitcoin mining could be addressed by “transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

The memo itself offers a rather balanced overview of energy-related concerns associated with PoW mining, although it also reiterates certain statements that have been questioned by recent research. For one, the authors stated that the energy consumption and environmental impact of crypto mining may grow in the coming years — a claim that was countered in Bitcoin Policy Institute’s fact-checking brochure.

Jake Chervinsky, head of policy at the Blockchain Association, tweeted that the memo was “not all bad, but commits basic errors.”

The hearing is scheduled for 10:30 am EST on Jan. 20 and will be streamed here.

‘Surgical removal’ of crypto will only weaken USD dominance, commentators say

Former Acting Comptroller of the Currency joins Voyager Digital’s board

Voyager chair Philip Eytan cited Brian Brooks' experience at crypto companies and his leadership behind regulatory initiatives as reasons for the hire.

Crypto trading platform Voyager Digital announced Bitfury CEO and former Acting Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks has joined the firm’s board of directors.

In a Monday announcement, Voyager chair Philip Eytan said Brooks had joined the board as an “independent, non-executive Director,” citing the former comptroller’s experience at crypto companies and his leadership behind regulatory initiatives in the United States during his time at the OCC. Brooks served as acting Comptroller of the Currency until January, was Coinbase’s chief legal officer from 2018 to 2020, and held the position of CEO at Binance.US for less than four months this year.

During his time at the OCC, Brooks oversaw the enactment of the fintech banking charter, which allowed crypto companies to offer lending and payment products without oversight from state banking regulators. Bitfury appointed Brooks as CEO in October.

Related: US is 'unquestionably' behind the curve on crypto ETFs, says Brian Brooks

Founded in 2018, Voyager Digital currently offers more than 60 digital assets for trading on its mobile app, which also includes services such as yield farming. The firm has recently inked partnerships with sports organizations in the United States, including the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and the National Women's Soccer League. In October, the platform announced it had received a $75 million investment from crypto quantitative trading firm and liquidity provider Alameda Research.

‘Surgical removal’ of crypto will only weaken USD dominance, commentators say

Crypto in the House: Execs on the march, US partisan politics and Web3

A largely proclaimatory meetup generated a positive response, with the industry appearing ready for a busy new year on the Hill.

On Dec. 8, top executives from six major crypto companies faced the United States House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee during a special hearing on digital assets. While the tone of the conversation was largely proclaimatory, the industry reacted with an optimistic buzz — it seems that crypto is bound to become a hot topic on the Hill for years to come.

The meeting that took place in Congress also garnered much attention from mainstream media. What’s notable is the fact that this hearing is the first time that the industry’s senior leaders (aka “crypto moguls”) directly expressed the fears and hopes of the $2.2-trillion sector to U.S. legislators.

The industry representatives who were summoned to testify at the hearing included Jeremy Allaire, CEO of Circle; Sam Bankman-Fried, CEO of FTX; Chad Cascarilla, CEO of Paxos; Denelle Dixon, CEO of the Stellar Development Foundation; Brian Brooks, CEO of Bitfury; and Alesia Haas, chief financial officer of Coinbase.

Some of the key legislators who actively engaged with the crypto industry captains were Representative Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas; Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California; Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York; Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California; Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican from North Carolina; Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Republican from Missouri; and Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio. 

So, here’s how it went down on the big day.

Key arguments

Allaire supported this point with an example from his firm’s operations: “Just in the past several weeks, Circle has signed on institutional customers who are using these services for small-business payments, international remittances and efficient payments for remote workers.” As he optimistically stated, soon “Dollars on the internet will be as efficient and widely available as text messages and email.”

Brooks took the message even closer to key political tensions of the day as he emphasized the opposition between tech behemoths such as Meta (formally Facebook) and the decentralizing impulse of crypto:

At the center of the CEOs’ narrative was the humanitarian significance of digital assets and their developmental potential. Cascarilla framed crypto as a “really powerful tool for democratization of access.” 

The point of crypto is to have true decentralization, and the projects that succeed will be the projects that achieve that. Bitcoin succeeded because there were literally millions of participants in the node network, and so there is no CEO of Twitter to deplatform you, there’s no CEO of JPMorgan to take away your credit card.

It was also Brooks who laid out the powerful promise of the blockchain-powered Web3 era. 

Aside from the fiery rhetoric, the message from the industry leaders was crisp and straightforward: It’s about time to bilaterally reconsider the rules of the game and put an end to the government’s suspicious paternalism. The industry is still being overseen by several federal agencies, state-by-state regulation is a mess, and the Securities and Exchange Commission is trying to hold its grip, characterizing digital assets as securities.

The last point was clearly emphasized as the main problem: Coinbase’s Haas proposed deeming blockchain-based tokens as digital property or a way to record ownership, which would put them outside of the SEC’s jurisdiction.

Brooks didn’t spare words when highlighting the dysfunctional patterns of the current situation: “What happens in the United States is you have a new crypto project, and you walk into the SEC, and you describe it in great detail, and you ask for guidance, and they say, ‘We can't tell you’ and ‘You list it at your own peril.’”

Political divisions

The Dec. 8 hearing once again brought out a division regarding crypto-related issues that exists along party lines. Democrats focused their attention on investor protection and volatility, framing the industry as a potential threat to both uninformed investors and the global economy (environmental concerns were also mentioned.)

“Currently, cryptocurrency markets have no overarching or centralized regulatory framework, leaving investments in the digital assets space vulnerable to fraud, manipulation and abuse,” as Waters, who chairs the Financial Services Committee, put it.

Related: Lines in the sand: US Congress is bringing partisan politics to crypto

Sherman, one of the industry’s most consistent critics, expressed this anxiety in a quite vague, if not cryptic, form: “The powers in our society on Wall Street and in Washington have spent millions, and are trying to make billions or trillions, in the crypto world.” 

Republican legislators, who — following a decades-old pattern of the American electoral system — are projected to win the majority in Congress in the next midterm elections, demonstrated a pragmatic approach.

In the words of McHenry, who is poised to chair the Financial Services Committee if the GOP wins back the House:

This technology is already regulated. Now, the regulations may be clunky, they may not be up to date. I ask my friends, my policymaker friends here on the Hill, this question: Do you know enough about this technology to have a serious debate?

Sessions went even further and gave an outright cheer to the industry, uttering a promise to support it: “I am tremendously impressed that from what I see, a lot of the ingenuity, a lot of entrepreneurial spirit, and lots of advice about the future, about where this can grow, is, I think, very important for us to listen to.”

Industry response

Despite certain disagreements between legislators, the hearing sparked a largely positive reaction from the crypto community, with Jake Chervinsky, head of policy at the Blockchain Association, calling it “the most positive, constructive, & bipartisan public event on crypto I’ve seen in Congress” and other experts largely projecting similar vibes.

Some representatives also projected an empathic epigraph in the aftermath of the hearing. Perhaps the most eloquent reaction belongs to Meeks, who demonstrated a moderate optimism toward the industry’s future:

The silence of crypto critic Sherman, normally an active Twitter user, was also notable.

What’s next

The overall optimistic mood of the hearing stands in contrast to some of the recent regulatory actions taken by the U.S. government. For one, the SEC denied WisdomTree’s application for a spot Bitcoin exchange-traded fund after seven months of consideration, keeping it impossible to invest in a regulated financial product providing direct exposure to the world’s oldest cryptocurrency.

Surely, the hearing will not be the last turn in the crypto-government conversation, even for 2021. Already, a hearing on stablecoins took place before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Dec. 14.

As Representative McHenry put it, “Congress must work to fully understand and embrace these innovative new technologies, like #crypto.” It looks like everyone should brace for a busy 2022 in crypto policy and regulation.

‘Surgical removal’ of crypto will only weaken USD dominance, commentators say

Former Comptroller Brian Brooks gets a new gig as Bitfury CEO

Former Binance.US CEO Brian Brooks has become the new CEO of Bitfury and will oversee the firm’s rapid expansion plans.

Former Comptroller of the Currency and Binance.US CEO Brian Brooks has been announced as the new CEO of crypto (BTC) mining firm BitFury.

According to a Nov. 4 announcement from Bitfury, Brooks was appointed last Friday and he will lead the firm as it prepares for a new funding round. Bitfury founder and former CEO Valery Vavilov will serve as Chief Vision Officer and the Chairman of the Board of Directors.

“Mr. Brooks will lead the 10-year-old crypto unicorn as it launches a new funding round, increases the growth of its mining business with a revolutionary new microchip design and new global data center locations, and scales a portfolio of innovative businesses,” the breathless announcement read.

Bitfury’s last funding round occurred in 2018, when it raised $80 million at a valuation of $1 billion. Vavilov confirmed to Cointelegraph on Oct. 18 that the firm was considering a new fundraise via a potential initial public offering (IPO), but nothing is concrete at this stage.

Prior to this role, Brooks worked at Binance’s U.S. branch for a mere three months before resigning in August this year. Many onlookers speculated that the decision was due to prior knowledge about regulatory issues plaguing the firm.

Brooks also worked as Coinbase’s Chief Legal Officer between 2018 and 2020, and is well-liked amongst the crypto community due to his strongly pro-crypto stance while serving as the Acting Comptroller of the Currency.

During his time at the agency between May 2020 to January 2021, Brooks oversaw the enactment of the fintech banking charter that enabled fintech firms and crypto companies to offer lending and payment products without oversight from state banking regulators.

Related: Cipher Mining splashes $350M on next-gen Bitcoin mining rigs from Bitfury

“Brian is a respected executive and thought leader with deep regulatory, digital asset and capital markets expertise who shares Bitfury’s vision for a decentralized peer-to-peer economy,” Vavilov said.

Bitfury was established in 2011 and is one of the largest companies in the blockchain sector. It operates mobile data centers and provides a wide range of services such as crypto mining hardware design, software and artificial intelligence products.

‘Surgical removal’ of crypto will only weaken USD dominance, commentators say

Crypto community in shock over Brian Brooks’ resignation from Binance.US

Changpeng Zhao said Brooks stepping down would not "impact Binance.US customers in any way." The cryptocurrency community has different thoughts.

After serving as the chief executive officer of major cryptocurrency exchange Binance.US for less than four months, Brian Brooks announced Friday he would be stepping down — a move that was greeted with confusion and suspicion from the crypto community. 

Citing “differences over strategic direction,” the now-former CEO said he had already resigned his position at Binance’s U.S. arm. Brooks had been leading the crypto exchange since replacing former CEO Catherine Coley on May 1.

Changpeng Zhao, the CEO of Binance — a separate entity from its U.S. arm — said Brooks stepping down would not “impact Binance.US customers in any way.” He explained:

“I remain confident in Binance.US's business and its commitment to serve its customers and innovate [...] As one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the United States, Binance.US is poised to continue to grow and empower the future of finance.”

However, members of the outspoken crypto community speculated that Brooks’ decision to leave the firm was based on internal knowledge about issues surrounding the global Binance exchange, possibly from regulators or other market forces. 

Others connected the timing of his departure to the regulatory backlash facing Binance, which has prompted the exchange to roll back or even cease operations in certain regions. Regulators in Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada have recently issued orders or warnings against Binance for various reasons. 

Binance has faced scrutiny even in the United States, with the Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service investigating the firm for alleged illegal trading activity. The exchange is reportedly the subject of an investigation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission regarding alleged trades by U.S. customers.

Related: Binance faces regulatory upheaval as lawmakers target ‘global’ exchanges

Others speculated that Brooks’ departure may have been connected with his belief that the crypto exchange business is not profitable in the long run. Those comments were made in an interview with Forbes weeks before his resignation.

The general takeaway from that interview, according to Forbes writer Javier Paz, was the “inevitable clash of direction” at Binance.US, likely between Brooks and the board of directors. According to one Twitter user, “It must be awful working against your moral compass.”

Some users reminded that Brooks’ desire to pursue a “strong compliance program” had the full backing of the board just a few months ago:

The general mood on Crypto Twitter was that the resignation was “very strange,” especially given all the excitement surrounding Brooks’ hiring just a few months earlier.

At the time of writing, Brooks has yet to disclose his career plans. Before joining Binance.US, he served in several high-profile roles at Coinbase and the United States Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. 

Related: Binance to restrict derivatives trading for Hong Kong users

With additional reporting from Turner Wright.

‘Surgical removal’ of crypto will only weaken USD dominance, commentators say

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‘Surgical removal’ of crypto will only weaken USD dominance, commentators say