When President Biden vowed to “intensify” relations with the Caribbean at the Summit of the Americas, he told leaders of more than a dozen Caribbean countries that they could meet with one of his top energy advisers whenever they wanted.
“Joe out of the blue mentioned him as someone that he relies on,” Dodd, a longtime friend of Biden and Hochstein’s former boss, said in an interview. “The president doesn’t do that that often.”
Hochstein, a presidential coordinator at the State Department, may not be a household name, but he has played a key role in advising Biden on international energy policy, according to interviews with half a dozen people familiar with the matter, including senior administration officials, energy analysts, lobbyists and friends.
Hochstein, 49, advised Biden on energy security when he was vice president. During the Trump administration he served as an executive at the Houston-based natural gas company Tellurian and on the supervisory board of Naftogaz, the Ukrainian state-owned oil and gas company. He also has done a small amount of lobbying for Marathon, the country’s largest oil refiner.
Now he is taking on one of the biggest challenges facing the Biden administration: how to rein in rising energy prices in a world that remains dependent on fossil fuels while advancing a climate-change agenda that is built on phasing out oil, gas and coal.
The tension between the two tasks has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The conflict has upended international energy markets and sent Democrats scrambling to address surging gasoline prices, a political liability, before the midterm elections.
Another hurdle is Hochstein’s résumé. As one of the only officials in the Biden administration with experience in the oil and gas industry, Hochstein has faced fierce criticism from environmentalists, who warn that the world urgently needs to phase out fossil fuels to avert a climate catastrophe.
“I’m not a big fan of Amos. I think of him as 100 percent an oil-and-gas guy, not a climate guy,” said one official at a prominent environmental group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships within the administration.
But supporters say Hochstein’s knowledge of global oil and gas markets has helped Biden navigate an urgent political problem: rising prices at the pump that imperil Democrats’ chances in the midterms and have dragged down the president’s approval rating.
“I’m not aware of anybody — certainly at the senior political level — who comes close to Amos in terms of understanding the realities of the energy industry,” said Bob McNally, president of Rapidan Energy Group, a consulting firm. “I call him President Joe Biden’s energy whisperer.”
Reached by phone, Hochstein declined to comment on the record for this report.
While Hochstein is not a Biden insider in the mold of White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, he speaks directly to the president and has earned his respect, according to people familiar with the matter. He has helped shape many of the administration’s attempts to tamp down gas prices, which had topped an average nationwide price of $5 per gallon as of June 11.
Most recently, Hochstein was involved in the decision to send letters on Wednesday to the CEOs of America’s largest oil and gas companies, according to a senior administration official, who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. In the letters, Biden informed the firms that he is considering invoking “emergency authorities” to boost refinery output.
“Amos is a key member of the president’s team managing energy disruptions from Putin’s war and helping mitigate cost impacts for families here and all over the world,” said National Economic Council Director Brian Deese.
Since joining the administration in August, Hochstein has been thrust into thorny debates over how to balance long-term efforts to combat climate change with short-term efforts to bolster the energy security of the United States and its allies in Europe.
Biden took office with ambitious plans for addressing climate change and accelerating the nation’s transition to clean energy. He vowed to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by the end of the decade, with the ultimate goal of eliminating economywide emissions by mid-century.
But the war in Ukraine has complicated these plans. Soaring gas prices have prompted Biden to take several steps that are anathema to climate activists, such as authorizing a historically large release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and resuming oil and gas leasing on federal land.
In Europe, which imported about 40 percent of its natural gas and more than a quarter of its oil from Russia before the conflict, the European Union has unveiled a plan to slash its dependence on Russian fossil fuels by strengthening energy-efficiency targets and deploying more clean energy technologies. But the 27-nation bloc also has sought to boost the flow of gas into the continent.
More than any other American official, Hochstein has played a critical role in steering these efforts on both sides of the Atlantic.
“There’s no doubt that Amos is at the pointy end of the spear when it comes to determining these policies,” said Daniel Vajdich, a lobbyist who has worked as an adviser to the Ukrainian state-owned energy sector.
In March, Biden tapped Hochstein to serve as the U.S. representative on the U.S.-E.U. Task Force for Energy Security, which will seek to boost U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe, with a goal of sending an additional 15 billion cubic meters this year, according to a White House fact sheet.
Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, has denounced Hochstein’s role on the task force. The group has questioned whether Hochstein is helping LNG export terminals get long-term contracts with Europe at a time when top scientists say the world needs to quit fossil fuels.
“The president may not like the climate legacy Mr. Hochstein is helping him secure,” said Lukas Ross, program manager at Friends of the Earth, which sued the Biden administration in May for refusing to expedite a public-records request seeking Hochstein’s communications with the task force and State Department ethics officials. (The State Department has since agreed to expedite the request.)
A senior administration official strongly rejected the notion that the task force is not cognizant of climate concerns. The official said the task force will strive to support Europe’s efforts to reduce demand for natural gas and will not encourage more gas infrastructure than what European countries are already planning.
A senior State Department official said Hochstein — who drives an electric vehicle and has solar panels on his roof — has sought to elevate climate concerns in internal administration discussions.
“He’s been very forcefully advocating that we make sure that the climate goals are the North Star,” the official said. “I think that was a bit unexpected for some who were thinking this isn’t the background that you’d necessarily expect for somebody who’d be an advocate on climate. But he has been.”
At the same time, Hochstein worries that transitioning to clean energy too rapidly could further increase fuel prices, adding to inflationary pressures that have raised the cost of consumer goods in the United States and Europe, according to a person familiar with his thinking. That could spark a popular backlash against climate policies, just as the “yellow vest” movement in France protested a proposed carbon tax.
In addition to huddling with European leaders, Hochstein has made half a dozen discreet visits to Saudi Arabia alongside Brett McGurk, the National Security Council Middle East coordinator, to urge the kingdom to increase oil production. The trips culminated in the news that Biden will visit Saudi Arabia next month, a remarkable departure from his pledge as a presidential candidate to treat the country as a “pariah.”
U.S. intelligence has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of the regime. The trip highlights how the energy crisis has spurred Biden to stray from his past rhetoric on climate change, human rights and other issues.
“I think climate objectives are still at the core of this administration. But you know things have changed when the president of the United States goes to Saudi Arabia,” said Dan Yergin, vice chairman of S&P Global.
Meanwhile, former secretary of state John F. Kerry, Biden’s top climate diplomat, recently cautioned that the world must not lock in more fossil fuel infrastructure in response to the war in Ukraine.
“You have this new revisionism suggesting that we have to be pumping oil like crazy, and we have to be moving into long-term [fossil fuel] infrastructure building, which would be absolutely disastrous,” Kerry said at the Time 100 Summit in New York City this month. ″We have to push back, and we have to push back hard.”
Kerry, who overlapped with Hochstein at the State Department during the Obama administration, said the two men have complementary — not contradictory — roles.
Hochstein “understands the global energy system as well as anyone, and is doing everything in his power to help achieve the President’s goal: getting to a net zero, pollution neutral world in time to avoid the worst consequences of climate crisis and safeguard energy security,” Kerry said in a statement.
While Kerry’s climate diplomacy has garnered a flurry of media coverage, Hochstein’s work has largely flown under the radar in Washington, with the exception of his high-profile appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month. Hochstein prefers to stay out of the spotlight, according to a person familiar with the matter.
In September 2020, 145 climate advocacy groups sent a letter urging Biden, then the Democratic nominee, to ban all fossil fuel executives, lobbyists and representatives from any positions on his campaign, or his transition team or administration, should he win the presidency.
“Many thousands of talented experts, advocates and community leaders who do not represent coal, oil and gas companies would gladly serve in your administration and help move our country forward into the clean energy future,” the groups wrote. “We urge you to choose them over the fossil fuel CEOs, lobbyists and representatives who are profiting from climate destruction.”
The senior State Department official said that such “litmus tests” on climate can be unhelpful.
“The energy sector is going to need to be a partner in this effort,” the official said. “And if we don’t let anybody who has any experience working closely with that sector serve in leadership roles, then we’re missing a piece of the puzzle.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that soon after President Biden took office, 145 climate advocacy groups sent him a letter regarding fossil fuel executives, lobbyists and representatives. The letter was sent in September 2020, when Biden was the Democratic nominee. The article has been corrected.