Amos Hochstein, President Joe Biden’s point man on global energy issues, says he knows moving away from climate-destroying fossil fuel pollution is the only way forward. He urgently pleads for renewable energy, for smart thermostats and heat pumps.
But when it comes to tackling the pressing energy challenges presented by Russia’s war on Ukraine, Hochstein may also look like nothing but the roustabout of the Western oilfields, taking a wrench giant pipe for near-crisis level energy shortages in the world.
Appearing before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee this month on U.S. aid in Russia-fueled energy problems in Europe, Hochstein spoke enthusiastically about the prospects for a new floating natural gas terminal in Albania, new gas connections elsewhere in the Balkans, increasing the flow of gas from Central Asia and the flow of gas from Spain to the rest of Europe.
“We have to face the reality that today the European system depends on gas,” Hochstein told the AP after the hearing. This was a relatively rare public account of an envoy whose work normally takes place behind the scenes. “And I have to make sure people have heating in the winter and they have electricity.”
Increasingly, however, some climate advocates are expressing concern over what they see as the Biden administration’s focus on new heavy-duty natural gas and infrastructure projects in the United States as part of of an all-out effort by Europe and the United States to wrest Europe from its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Climate groups say new spending on building pipelines, terminals, ports and storage facilities threatens to lock in increased dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come, while doing little to address the energy crisis today. most immediate of Europe.
Criticism intensified on Tuesday, after Biden and other Group of Seven leaders relaxed their 2021 climate pledges to move away from public funding for new fossil fuel infrastructure, citing Russia’s war.
“Public support for gas infrastructure is not what Joe Biden promised,” Kate DeAngelis, head of Friends of the Earth’s international funding program, said in a statement in response.
But as U.S. companies nearly tripled U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe in the months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hochstein cites his immediate challenge: allowing Europeans to get through the end of the year without freezing at home.
The European Union received about 40% of its natural gas from Russia before the war. Western-imposed sanctions and Russian cuts, along with Europe’s major shift to non-Russian suppliers, are depriving Europe of Russian natural gas.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers hailed Hochstein’s efforts to decouple Europe from Russian pipelines and demanded more. Climate change and clean energy are “significant challenges,” Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, chair of the Europe and Regional Security Cooperation panel where Hochstein appeared, told the AP. “But I think our number one priority here has to be defeating Putin and helping Ukraine.”
The Biden administration has struggled to alleviate two problems simultaneously: a global energy crisis and a rapidly heating Earth.
Oil and gas supply shortages are creating problems for European and Asian allies that, if left unresolved, could threaten the united economic front against Russian President Vladimir Putin. At home, lack of energy is contributing to the high gas prices, inflation and discontent that threaten Democrats in November’s midterm elections and Biden’s re-election later.
But at the same time, scientists, climate advocates and the Biden administration itself say world governments are counting the time left over the past few years to ward off the most devastating scenarios of climate change.
The rate at which the world is currently burning oil, natural gas and coal gives humans a one-in-two chance of reaching the maximum average temperatures hoped for in the Paris climate accord within five years, the official said. ‘World Meteorological Organization last month.
Some climate advocates worry that current energy shortages could push Biden and other world leaders back to an oil and gas drilling and building prospect they had sworn to in the name of climate change, despite climate efforts by Biden elsewhere.
Many were appalled by the joint statement this week from Biden and other leaders of the G-7 club of wealthy democracies that it was once again acceptable for governments to invest in gas infrastructure as a “temporary response.”
A dangerous and unnecessary move, climate advocates said of the G-7’s climate rollback.
“New funding for fossil fuel exploration and production infrastructure is an illusion,” tweeted UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres after the G-7 statement. “Fossil fuels are not the solution. Renewable energy is.
Climate advocates are wary of what they see as Hochstein’s support for some infrastructure projects in Europe for liquefied natural gas.
Friends of the Earth points to its ties to the oil and gas industry. These include his roles as senior vice president of Houston-based LNG exporter Tellurian and an advisory board member of Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz, before stepping down in 2020 to protest corruption, a he pointed out in a newspaper column. In Hochstein’s government post, Biden gave him high-profile political assignments, including working with the Saudi oil giant at a time of frosty relations.
Hochstein described US-backed LNG construction in Europe as key to preventing Russia from exercising power over Europe’s energy and economy.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the clean infrastructure to replace natural gas in the short to medium term,” Hochstein told the AP. “So it’s a tough, tough balance to have. But that’s what we’re committed to.
“And I agree with everyone who says this only reinforces the absolute need to accelerate the energy transition” from oil and gas, he added.
Energy experts from environmental groups say there are cleaner ways to break away from Russian gas.
Faster action to curb energy industry flaring and venting and plug natural gas leaks — two things the Biden administration has already pledged to work on — could get quick results without further damaging the climate, said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Brownstein pointed to an International Energy Agency study that found that the fossil fuel industry lost or wasted more natural gas last year than all the gas used in Europe’s power sector.
Natural gas is primarily methane. Methane from agriculture and fossil fuels alone is responsible for around a quarter of all climate damage.
David Kieve, president of the defense arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the days when natural gas could be considered a “bridge fuel” were “over”. He served as director of public engagement at the White House Council on Environmental Quality during Biden’s first year.
“I think there’s an understanding that we need to go much faster still,” he said.
Ellen Knickmeyer reports for The Associated Press.