The fossil fuel executive inside the White House
As Biden faces the biggest climate decision of his term, he's hearing "concerns" from one of his closest advisors—who happens to be a former gas executive.
In the coming weeks, U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to make one of the most consequential climate change decisions of his term.
Bloomberg News reports that the White House will soon decide whether to pause the permit approval process for more than a half dozen new liquified methane gas (LNG) export terminals, which would ship domestically produced fracked gas to countries overseas.
(Note: LNG stands for liquified “natural” gas, but HEATED’s editorial policy is to call the product “methane” gas. Read more about why here.)
These proposed terminals are massive fossil fuel projects that, if given the green light by the Department of Energy, could add up to 317 coal plants worth of carbon emissions to the atmosphere over the coming decade, according to The Guardian.
Needless to say, adding 317 coal plants worth of carbon emissions to the atmosphere would effectively doom the U.S.’s climate goals—and certainly violate Biden’s recent pledge at COP28 “to transition away from the fossil fuels that jeopardize our planet and our people.”
But activists feel confident that this is a fight they can win—namely because, as Bloomberg reported on Friday, several influential Biden advisors have already come on board with a pause.
Officials who believe the Department of Energy must implement a stricter climate test for LNG project approvals include Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, senior clean energy advisor John Podesta, and National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi.
At the same time, however, Biden is also facing increased pressure from the methane gas industry to push these massive LNG projects through. And though most of that pressure is coming from outside methane gas groups and lobbyists, some of the calls are reportedly coming from inside the house.
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The fossil fuel executive inside the White House
In its article detailing the internal White House debate over LNG export facilities on Friday, Bloomberg also listed a number of Biden advisors who are not on board with implementing a stricter climate test for the massive fossil fuel projects.
That list included Biden’s senior energy advisor Amos Hochstein—a particularly influential confidant to the president, who has reportedly “raised concerns” about the economic and geopolitical impacts of a pause.
Hochstein, according to a 2022 profile in The Washington Post, is known as Biden’s “energy whisperer.” Cited specifically by the president as someone he relies on, Hochstein 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.”
But part of the reason Hochstein knows so much about the methane gas industry is that he himself is a former methane gas executive. Before joining the White House, Hochstein was a marketing VP for Tellurian, a Houston-based methane gas company that struggled to get its own planned LNG export “megaterminal” off the ground while Hochstein was at the firm.
If approved, Tellurian’s proposed $30 billion terminal in Lake Charles, Louisiana—called Driftwood LNG—would be capable of exporting up to 27.5 million tons of methane gas every year. That would make it “one of the largest polluters in the Gulf region,” according to the Sierra Club, which has filed two lawsuits to stop the project.
When he worked for Tellurian from 2017 to 2020, Hochstein made more than $620,000 a year in salary, and between $100,000 to $1 million in limited stock options, according to documents acquired by the Revolving Door Project. Hochstein also collected $10,000 in speaking fees from Dorian LPG, a liquid petroleum shipper, and $75,000 in consulting fees from Dana Gas, a methane gas company based in the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to his work at Tellurian, Hochstein has also served on the supervisory board of Naftogaz, the Ukrainian state-owned oil and gas company, and has done a “small amount of lobbying for Marathon, the country’s largest oil refiner,” according to the Washington Post.
So for activists working on the Stop LNG campaign, it’s no surprise that Hochstein is advising caution around a stricter climate test for LNG projects.
“It’s concerning to know that there’s someone with such deep ties to the industry whispering in the ear of the president,” said Jamie Henn, the director of Fossil Free Media, which is supporting the Stop LNG campaign. “That’s exactly the type of revolving door that should raise red flags for anyone who cares about an ethical administration.”
But based on the progress they’ve achieved so far, activists still believe they have a good shot of overpowering the fossil fuel interests inside and outside the White House—so long as they keep the pressure high.
The next step: A large-scale civil disobedience action
The fact that the Biden Administration is even considering a pause on the proposed LNG export facility expansion is a testament to the effectiveness of both local and national climate activism over the last few months.
National-level activists started ramping up pressure on the White House over LNG in the fall of 2023, following prolonged calls from frontline communities near the proposed export terminals. They argued that the Department of Energy approval process—which is supposed to determine whether a fossil fuel project is in the public’s interest—did not actually consider the true climate impact of LNG.
And it’s true: The DOE’s current approval process for LNG projects does not factor in up-to-date lifecycle emissions estimates for the fuel. Though proponents of LNG exports argue that it’s a lower-emissions replacement for coal overseas, recent data from Cornell University professor Robert Howarth asserts that “greenhouse gas emissions from LNG are larger than those from domestically produced coal, ranging from 18 percent to 185 percent greater for the average cruise distance of an LNG tanker. (The data has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but is currently in review, according to Howarth.)
Howarth’s study also notes that the climate impact of liquified, exported methane gas is far greater than regular methane gas, because liquifying the gas is extremely energy intensive, and a good deal of methane escapes into the atmosphere during transportation.
Activists have done a good enough job communicating this data that the White House has become concerned, both about the climate and political consequences of allowing LNG approvals to move forward. Overall, Bloomberg reports that White House advisors are “broadly aligned on the need to make changes” of some kind to the LNG facility approval process. “The fault lines are over how aggressive to be.”
So activists are planning to increase the pressure in early February, with a multi-day civil disobedience action at the Department of Energy—and asking people to join.
“This is probably the largest decision that Biden is going to face before the election on fossil fuels,” Henn said.
We’ll leave you with a snippet from a letter about the action—which is sponsored by Fossil Free Media, Bill McKibben’s organization Third Act, and People Vs. Fossil Fuels:
We’re writing to ask you to do something hard but important: come to Washington DC in the middle of this winter, to join a demonstration and, if you can, risk arrest in a large-scale civil disobedience action. We know it’s a lot: we wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t both important, and potentially effective.
What’s at stake is the largest fossil fuel buildout in the world. As is so often the case, local frontline groups on the Gulf Coast have been warning about the massive buildout of liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure for years. They’ve seen the pollution, health impacts, and environmental injustice of these facilities first hand. Now we’re building as broad a coalition as we can. …
So far, the DOE has refused to listen to thousands of letters and ignored petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people. So we need to go to DC to drive home how serious this crisis is.
We will conduct a highly-civil civil disobedience action over three days in mid-February, peacefully blocking the entrance to the department.
We know this action isn’t for everyone, and we know that everyone can’t travel to DC—some of us will be joining instead in solidarity actions nearer our homes.
For those of who do head to Washington, we agree to keep this action peaceful in word, mood, and action; if your level of frustration is too high to insure that, please stay home and think of other ways to help. We are committed to calm, to dignity, and to giving the Biden administration every possible chance to prove that they are climate leaders on the dirty energy side of the climate crisis as well as the clean.
If you plan on coming, we hope you will sign up here, picking one of the three days to participate. You’ll need to undergo some online training, and then another session the night before you plan to risk arrest.
2023 saw the hottest weather on this planet in at least 125,000 years; we think it is an honor to rise in defense of the planet we love, and the places where we live. Thank you for considering joining in.
Arielle Samuelson contributed reporting.
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