North Dakota Bitzero project raises management, ownership questions

Nancy Dugan lives in Altoona, Iowa and has worked as an online editor for the past 12 years.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum announced in July 2022 that the Cavalier County Job Development Authority (CCJDA) had “executed binding agreements for international data center developer Bitzero Blockchain Inc. to acquire and redevelop the historic Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex at Nekoma, N.D., commonly known as ‘The Pyramid.’”

According to the governor’s press release:

Bitzero plans to develop the abandoned Cold War-era military installation into a highly secure data center for high-performance computing and data processing. Waste heat captured from the data center’s servers will be used to heat an on-site greenhouse, and the company also is planning an interpretive center and additional community engagement at the site, representing a total expected investment estimated by Bitzero at $500 million.

Burgum stated in a May/June 2021 Future Farmer magazine Q&A, “We have opportunities to create markets for our CO2 right here in our state. Greenhouses are a great example: If we could capture and use our CO2 in greenhouses to grow crops year-round, we could grow crops not typically produced in North Dakota, such as blueberries and avocados.”

It is not clear whether Burgum was referring to CO2 captured through the proposed Summit Carbon Solutions pipeline project, although he made similar remarks about captured CO2 use in greenhouses during a December 20, 2023, BEK TV presentation about the Summit Carbon pipeline.

The press release went on to state the following:

Bitzero’s bid for the site was delivered with a comprehensive Zero Carbon Displacement (ZCD) energy strategy, meaning the facility’s carbon footprint will be offset with use of renewable energy sources. The CCJDA Board of Directors voted unanimously on July 18 to accept Bitzero’s bid proposal after a presentation from Bitzero CEO Akbar Shamji.

The CCJDA provided meeting minutes from July 2022 to January 2024, which contain information pertaining to the Bitzero project. According to the minutes from July 18, 2022, Shamji’s presentation was deemed confidential; the minutes don’t explain why.


The Bitzero announcement came some two and a half years after the death of 19-year-old Zac Brettler in November 2019, following a fall from the balcony of a luxury apartment in London. An article by Patrick Radden Keefe for the New Yorker, published on February 5, documented the December 2019 arrest and questioning of Shamji and another man, Verinder Sharma, as well as their release from custody. Sharma, who is referred to in the article as an alleged “gangster” previously arrested for heroin smuggling and implicated in a murder, was the last known person to see Brettler alive. He died of an apparent drug overdose in the same apartment from which Brettler had fallen in December 2020.

The article also covered the public inquest into Brettler’s death, which UK authorities held in December 2022. (Such an inquest is required following a suspicious death.) An excerpt from Radden Keefe’s reporting:

The star witness at the inquest was Akbar Shamji. He no longer lived in London, and he’d become the C.E.O. of a crypto company, Bitzero. In the spring of 2022, he’d announced grand plans to convert a complex of Cold War-era missile silos in Nekoma, North Dakota, into a crypto-mining facility. Bitzero’s North American headquarters would be in the state, Shamji promised at a press conference, noting, “We’re torn between Fargo and Bismarck.”

It is important to note that CCTV evidence proves Shamji was not present when Brettler plunged to his death. According to a February 18 article in the Daily Mail, Shamji had recently left the apartment and arrived back at the scene around ten minutes after Brettler’s fall.

The coroner declined to rule on whether the death was a suicide or suspicious, according to The New Yorker. The evidence did indicate that Shamji likely knew Brettler had gone off the balcony, and went looking for Brettler along the Thames River after his fall, although Shamji subsequently denied that he knew what had happened to the young man.

The matter has received extensive news coverage since the publication of The New Yorker story. According to a February 11 article in The Telegraph, “Sir Robert Buckland, the former justice secretary, told The Telegraph that a review of the investigation was now required.”

In addition to Shamji’s mysterious affiliation with Sharma, one paragraph from The New Yorker article raises questions about what is alleged to be Shamji’s former London business address:

One afternoon in December, I met Rachelle for tea in central London, and afterward she proposed a walk around Mayfair. We headed to 52 Berkeley Square, supposedly Shamji’s former business address. It was an attractive five-story building fronted by a wrought-iron fence. At the entrance, Rachelle brought my attention to a panel featuring twenty-five buzzers for different businesses. Either the accommodations were very crowded inside or this was all sleight of hand – an illustrious address functioning as a mail drop.

During a June 2022 press conference announcing Bitzero’s plans for a new data center in North Dakota, Burgum championed Shamji, calling him a “remarkable individual, Cambridge trained, was the CEO of a large, publicly traded company on the Mumbai index in India for ten years working on renewable energy in India.” The New Yorker piece identifies Shamji as the CEO of an entity called CPEC from 2010 to 2020, apparently referencing a CPEC website that features information about Shamji, CPEC India, and Bitzero.

Burgum again referenced the use of captured CO2 in greenhouses, ostensibly the Bitzero site, during the same press conference. O’Leary also referenced the importance of carbon sequestration, stressing the benefits of “royalty checks” to landowners, although he talked about capturing and sequestering CO2 from flared gas related to fracking. It is not clear how – or if – the proposed Summit Carbon pipeline may be tied to Bitzero projects.

Summit Carbon Solutions announced in January 2022 that it was partnering with Northern Plains Nitrogen (NPN), a proposed blue ammonia plant that will be located in Grand Forks County, “to capture, transport and permanently store carbon dioxide.” That project is not yet on the Summit Carbon route.

Sabrina Zenor, director of stakeholder engagement and corporate communications for Summit Carbon, told Bleeding Heartland in a January 25 email that NPN would be added to the route once the plant is built. This will move the route considerably farther north toward Cavalier County.

A December 2023 City of Grand Forks Staff Report stated the following: “The NPN products will be considered ‘Blue’ or using the latest proven and efficient technology to include carbon capture and utilization.” Emails to Summit Carbon and the City of Grand Forks requesting clarification about whether carbon captured at the proposed NPN site would be utilized rather than sequestered went unanswered.


In The New Yorker article, Radden Keefe identified Carl Agren as the interim CEO of Bitzero, adding that Agren told him Shamji was asked to resign last September. The article did not identify any reason for that request.

An Internet search identified Agren as CEO of Phoenix Technology in an October 2022 company news release. According to Crunchbase, the Dubai-based company is one of “the pioneers in blockchain and cryptocurrency.”

A February 2022 article in Yahoo! Finance identified O’Leary and Dubai-based Phoenix Group as strategic investors in the Bitzero project. After Bleeding Heartland asked staff members of Burgum and North Dakota Commissioner of Commerce Joshua Teigen to provide a status update on the Bitzero project and Shamji’s role at the company, Teigen replied via email on February 20, “Given the state has not invested any money in this project, they are not required to supply us with project updates. It is our understanding that Mr. Shamji is no longer employed by Bitzero. The details of his remaining involvement, if any, are best asked to Bitzero directly.”

That statement is somewhat at odds with the CCJDA meeting minutes from September 6, 2023:

Shannon gave a brief update on the SRMSC site progress. We are waiting to hear about the results of a meeting between ND Department of Commerce and Bitzero. Larger project has caused the need to redo some plans including engineering and looking at available utilities and infrastructure.

An email to Joshua Lebovic, whom the Yahoo! Finance article listed as CFO of Bitzero, went unanswered.

Recent LinkedIn posts identify Agren as an executive committee member of the Phoenix Group; some LinkedIn members discuss the Phoenix Group’s December 5, 2023, Initial Public Offering (IPO) on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange. This link identified M2 as the “new home of crypto investments” and announced “a pioneering collaboration with the IPO ready Phoenix Group.” O’Leary promoted the IPO in a November 2023 Instagram video.

Helen Partz reported for Cointelegraph in December 2023 that Phoenix Group stock had soared as much as 50 percent from the initial public offering price on December 5. According to a Nomad Capitalist YouTube video, also posted in December, O’Leary is a citizen of Canada, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates.

Teigen’s claim that the state has not invested any money in Bitzero is complicated. According to Wikipedia, the U.S. government spent $6 billion to build the entire complex. Additionally, the Cavalier County Republican reported in September 2017, “On June 23, 2017, the JDA reached an agreement with the seller to purchase part of the property for $462,900. The money is part of a $600,000 grant from the North Dakota Department of Commerce that the JDA received to help buy and redevelop the property.”

A Cavalier County Republican article from May 2021 documented an additional $600,000 grant to the CCJDA from the 67th North Dakota Legislative Assembly to prepare the Mickelsen complex for future use as a data center. The Associated Press reported in July 2022 that the CCJDA planned to sell the complex to Bitzero for $250,000.  

Burgum spokesperson Mike Nowatzki told the Associated Press that Bitzero is “expected to qualify for tax credits already given to agriculture, energy and other industries.”

According to a Norman Transcript story from April 2023, the Mickelsen complex is located some 30 miles south of the Canadian border.

Bitzero’s physical address on the North Dakota Secretary of State’s website is 2416 Main St., Suite 398, Vancouver, BC V5T 3E2 Canada. The same address is listed on Bitzero’s SEC filings. A Google screenshot of this address suggests that it is a mail-drop site.

There is an active website named, which connects to X/Twitter and Instagram accounts. Neither of those social media accounts has posted for more than a year. The website itself appears minimally functional and provides little information about the company. A LinkedIn account associated with Bitzero Blockchain Inc. identifies it as a public company based in Norway. 


O’Leary is involved in several business deals in North Dakota. The North Dakota Department of Commerce announced a partnership between the North Dakota Development Fund and O’Leary Ventures (OLV) in January 2023. The program, coined the Wonder Fund North Dakota, grants OLV the authority to manage “a $45 million direct investment program aimed at bolstering economic growth throughout the state.” Funding is provided through the U.S. Department of Treasury’s State Small Business Credit Initiative. According to the press release,

Kevin O’Leary, the general partner of OLV, will serve as the fund’s Chairman and will direct the vision and strategy of the fund. Paul Palandjian, the co-general partner and CEO of OLV, will be responsible for the day-to-day management of the fund.

The U.S. Treasury Department posts a listing of small business financing program designations by state, reflecting O’Leary Ventures’ oversight of the $45 million.

But it is clear from the Bitzero deal that O’Leary’s involvement in the state began well before January 2023. However, Teigen told Bleeding Heartland in a February 21 email, “Bitzero did not receive funding from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s State Small Business Credit Initiative.”

The CCJDA’s meeting minutes document a planned request from Bitzero for $3.2 million in legislative funding for the proposed interpretive center, questions regarding how to supply the amount of water needed for the proposed data center and greenhouse, an update on new leadership, and concerns over unpaid bills. The status of the $3.2 million proposed funding request is not known. 

The last minutes provided, from the January 3, 2024 meeting, noted the following:

SRMSC Update. Discussion was made about Bitzero and some of their unpaid bills. Being Bitzero is a private entity, and their business is their personal business, it will no longer be an issue for discussion at our meetings. Shannon read the following statement to the board, to be used in response to future inquiries regarding Bitzero:

“CCDJA is a public entity, however we cannot provide continuous updates on a private business. Our contract with Bitzero has benchmark dates of December 30, 2025 and July 1, 2027. We will be able to update at those times.”

The board was in consensus to use this as a blanket statement in response to update requests from the media and public.

Additionally, the July 18, 2022 CCJDA meeting minutes noted the following:

Josh [Commerce Commissioner Teigen] opened the meeting by introducing the Bitzero team and a review of information about Bitzero. Commerce first came in contact with Akbar at a cryptocurrency conference in Florida this past winter.


It is not clear when the conference to which Teigen referred took place, although Bitcoin 2022 is identified in the last paragraph of an April 2022 Department of Commerce press release. Shamji was interviewed by Kitco NEWS in April 2022 as part of the Bitcoin Miami conference, at which Kevin O’Leary was a keynote speaker.

Two weeks later, the North Dakota Department of Commerce posted photos of O’Leary and Shamji on X as they visited officials, including Burgum and U.S. Senator John Hoeven, in North Dakota.

From left: Governor Burgum, Kevin O’Leary, North Dakota Commissioner of Commerce Joshua Teigen (photo posted on North Dakota Department of Commerce X/Twitter account)

During the June 2022 press conference announcing Bitzero’s plans for North Dakota, Burgum acknowledged that he has known O’Leary for decades, dating back to O’Leary’s days as “one of the original founders of SoftKey back in 1986” (beginning at the 8:50 minute mark). Both Burgum and Teigen went on to praise O’Leary for his business acumen in selling SoftKey, which eventually became The Learning Company, to Mattel in 1999. These accounts diverge from a story about Mattel’s purchase of The Learning Company that Canada’s National Observer published in January 2016; that article deemed the sale a “disaster.”

Like O’Leary, Burgum also has a history as a venture capitalist and is identified as a founding partner on the Arthur Ventures website.

The website identifies Arthur Ventures’ primary investment areas, which include “the information technology, life sciences, healthcare, and clean technology sectors.” The website goes on to state, “Within clean technology, the focus is on biofuels development, clean coal, energy efficiency, and wind-powered technologies.”

During the December 20, 2023, BEK TV presentation, Burgum stated, “Sustainable aviation fuel, if you want to call it the Saudi Arabia of sustainable aviation fuel, it’s going to happen somewhere between North Dakota and Iowa and in between, the corn belt.”

Last month, Bleeding Heartland asked Burgum’s staff, “Can you please explain what areas of biofuels development Arthur Ventures is involved in? In what companies has it invested in this area, and also in the overall area of clean technology, including clean coal, energy efficiency, and wind-powered technologies?” 

Ryan Norrell, general counsel for the governor, responded on January 31: “The governor is not involved in the day-to-day operation of Arthur Ventures, and the Governor’s Office does not have that information. We would refer your questions to the company.”

Nonetheless, Burgum’s Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report, filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics on October 6, 2023, lists a complex web of disclosures that include numerous positions, assets, and income sources associated with the Arthur Ventures name.

Additionally, under Part 6: Other Assets and Income, item 50.1, Burgum lists Oil and Gas Lease – Continental Resources Williams County, ND – Income Type: Royalties – Income Amount: $15,001 — $50,000.

According to the Arthur Ventures website, the venture capital firm is also an investor in a Minneapolis-based company called Nomics, which is identified as active on the website. According to Nomics’ LinkedIn page, the company is the “#3 crypto data site by US traffic. World’s largest index of crypto assets (more than CoinMarketCap & CoinGecko COMBINED).” However, the website for this business listed on LinkedIn,, indicates the Nomics platform has been sunsetted. The status of this business is unknown.

About the Author(s)

Nancy Dugan

  • Thank you, Nancy Dugan

    I don’t really know what else to say, because although I’ve read this post twice, trying to figure out the various connections and complexities and potential tax grabs and private payoffs is very challenging. One thing I know is that I’m glad I’m not a North Dakota taxpayer.

    This post is also a depressing reminder of what is happening to an amazingly beautiful natural landscape.

  • Response to PrairieFan

    Thanks as always for your kind words, PrairieFan. It is complicated, and I have not yet extricated myself from this rabbit hole. Perhaps a flow chart and several Venn diagrams would have helped.

    I sought Shamji’s July 18, 2022, presentation and information on water use. Cavalier County State’s Attorney Angelo Mondragon responded on February 27 as follows: “The presentation and any records related to water use is confidential under the trade secrets, proprietary, and/or commercial information clause of North Dakota Century Code Section 44-04-18.4.” I have sought additional information on water use from the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA.

    In this video, O’Leary states that Bitzero’s largest shareholders are out of the United Arab Emirates (see the 2:50 minute mark).

    One major investor out of the UAE is the Phoenix Group, which just entered into a $380 million deal with WhatsMiner to buy hydro cooling Bitcoin mining equipment. This article also states that the Phoenix Group is an exclusive distributor for WhatsMiner, which is a brand name of China-based MicroBT.

    I asked the North Dakota Development Fund if O’Leary might need to register as a foreign agent under the circumstances. Not sure on that, but O’Leary is all over the news and is also frequently in the halls of Congress, most often pushing for deregulation. It seems to me that this would benefit foreign clients seeking cheap or free water and cheap energy. O’Leary routinely represents himself as a champion of “small businesses” in the U.S., although he is not a U.S. citizen (he has, however, taken the arduous steps necessary to secure citizenship in the UAE).

    On February 14, O’Leary wrote a column for the Daily Mail predicting that New York Community Bancorp (NYCB) would be “wiped out within three months.”

    O’Leary also stated the following: “But here’s one dead giveaway: the minute you read about a regional bank in the news, its money starts to flow out its doors – and you can start the countdown to when its reserves will be zero.” So my question is this: Did O’Leary predict the downfall of NYCB, or did he cause a run on the bank?

    O’Leary also recently stated that he would never invest in New York City, calling it a “mega loser state” following the recent Trump fraud ruling.

    I don’t see how North Dakota or any other state wins by approving data centers that will likely use tremendous amounts of water and energy to process data related to international cryptocurrency transactions. The only apt analogy I can think of is Saudi Arabia’s years-long arrangement in Arizona to pump water from a drought-stricken region of the state to grow alfalfa for export to the Gulf region to feed its livestock.

    During a recent visit to Oklahoma to pitch data centers, O’Leary referred to these facilities as the “‘new oil’ of our era.”
    As best I can tell, there was no mention of the business Bitzero, although Carl Agren, CEO of Dubai-based Phoenix Group, appears in one of the photos.

    If data centers are indeed the “new oil” of our era, under O’Leary’s business arrangement, it seems that the profits from this new oil will flow out of the U.S. as quickly as our natural resources are being depleted, to the detriment of the citizens of this country.