Elon Musk has been a big cryptocurrency booster of late, even directing Tesla to buy $1.5 billion in Bitcoin for its corporate treasury earlier this year. On Thursday, he abruptly reversed course, tweeting that Tesla would stop accepting Bitcoin as payment for cars, citing environmental reasons.
“We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel,” he said.
Bitcoin’s price promptly plunged by more than 10 percent, and Tesla’s shares dropped more than 4 percent, but recovered when trading began on Thursday.
Tesla said it would begin accepting the cryptocurrency a few months ago, when it also revealed a billion-dollar Bitcoin buy, pushing the price up by more than 10 percent. Bitcoin seems remarkably sensitive to the billionaire’s tweets. “If one person can dramatically alter spending power, the ‘stable store of value’ criteria of a currency is not met,” Paul Donovan of UBS wrote in a note to clients on Thursday.
Mining Bitcoin is energy-intensive, and the more it is worth, the more power it takes a network of computers to create the tokens, by design. Bitcoin’s climate problem is hardly a secret. The DealBook newsletter asks: What gives?
Tesla only started accepting Bitcoin for car purchases in the United States in March. Just over two weeks ago, Zach Kirkhorn, Tesla’s chief financial officer, told investors that “it is our intent to hold what we have long term and continue to accumulate Bitcoin from transactions from our customers as they purchase vehicles.” He described the rationale for buying and accepting Bitcoin as “Elon and I were looking for a place to store cash that wasn’t being immediately used, trying to get some level of return.”
An entry-level Tesla is worth about one Bitcoin, so the company’s $1.5 billion Bitcoin purchase in February far surpasses the amount of crypto it would collect from car sales for a very long time. That raises questions about the vetting and approval process for that investment, which may worry E.S.G. investors, who otherwise look favorably at an electric vehicle company. Did Mr. Musk not know about Bitcoin’s environmental impact until now? Who advised him on it? Did climate factor into the board’s approval process?
Mr. Musk’s statement said that “Tesla will not be selling any Bitcoin and we intend to use it for transactions as soon as mining transitions to more sustainable energy.” We’ll see whether it made any recent trades when it reports second-quarter results in July. Given the impact that Mr. Musk’s tweet had on Bitcoin’s price, any action just before or after will be scrutinized.
The return policy for cars bought with Bitcoin worked in Tesla’s favor, stipulating that buyers get back Bitcoin if it’s worth less than the equivalent dollar value at purchase but get back dollars if Bitcoin is worth more. That raises many issues, including accounting risks and worries about warranties and other consumer protection laws.
Mr. Musk can be an unreliable narrator. On Tuesday, he asked his followers on Twitter if Tesla should accept Dogecoin, the jokey cryptocurrency. (Most said yes.) On Sunday, he announced that SpaceX had taken Dogecoin as payment for shuttling a satellite to the moon. And as host of “Saturday Night Live,” he said that cryptocurrency was both “the future of currency” and “a hustle.”