clearing the fog

Amos Hochstein will spearhead Biden’s energy security policy at State Dept.

Experts weigh in on what the Biden advisor’s appointment says about U.S. policy on Nord Stream 2 and global energy

Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

U.S. Bureau of Energy Resources Special Envoy Amos Hochstein delivers a speech during opening ceremony of Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) in Thessaloniki, Greece on May 17, 2016.

Less than a month after reversing course on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, President Joe Biden has appointed former advisor Amos Hochstein to serve as the energy envoy overseeing the new policy, as first reported by Axios.

A close advisor to the president, Hochstein served in former President Barack Obama’s administration as special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs at the State Department. His new position appears to be similar to the one he held under Obama, but a State Department spokesperson declined to comment when asked for specifics about the role. Hochstein also declined to comment.

In a joint statement issued with Germany last month, the U.S. announced that it will allow the completion of the pipeline, which will carry natural gas directly from Russia to Germany. 

The decision contradicted previous statements from Secretary of State Tony Blinken that Washington opposed the pipeline, which has been criticized by European countries — including the U.K., Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine — who fear that it will allow Russia’s influence over Europe to grow. 

Hochstein is known to be a critic of Nord Stream 2, and in 2019, he called it an “existential crisis facing Ukraine.” Politico reported in April 2021 that Hochstein had been offered the posting overseeing the administration’s handling of the issue, but at the time, the position was rumored to be focused on shutting down the pipeline. Hochstein will now be tasked with seeing that policy through, even if he disagrees with aspects of it. 

“It could be an attempt to build bridges to both Eastern European governments and disaffected Hill Democrats,” said Matthew Zweig, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who worked on Syria sanctions at the State Department during the Trump administration. “I don’t see it as the administration considering any major reversals. I couldn’t see that happening. I think this is more of packaging and trying to sell it.”

At least one critic of the Biden administration’s handling of Nord Stream 2 praised the president’s selection of Hochstein. “Amos Hochstein’s experience and expertise make him the right pick to oversee the Nord Stream II agreement implementation,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) tweeted on Monday. Last month, she issued a statement expressing concern about the U.S.-Germany statement on the pipeline.

The issue has become a sticking point for some Republicans on Capitol Hill. The 12 Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee released a letter last month saying they would hold up votes on two high-level Treasury Department nominees until the administration imposes sanctions on companies tied to the pipeline. Hochstein appears to have accepted the role amid the political fallout that followed. 

Then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden (L) and Amos J. Hochstein, US State Department Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs, talk before the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative Luncheon during the Caribbean Energy Security Summit at the US Department of States January 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Although Hochstein’s portfolio appears focused for now on Nord Stream 2, he will also be working on issues of energy security more broadly, and experts say that the role could end up encompassing issues related to Israel and the Middle East.

One issue that could arise is the construction and implementation of the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline that would transport natural gas to Europe. In January 2020, Israel, Cyprus and Greece signed a deal to build the 1,180-mile pipeline from Israeli and Cypriot waters through Greece and onto Italy. 

“He essentially wrote the Obama administration’s roadmap on the Eastern Med gas issue under Vice President Biden,” said Daniel Silverberg, who worked with Hochstein in his role as national security advisor to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). 

The map for the pipeline was drawn during Hochstein’s time at the State Department, and he has credited Biden with turning the project into a reality. “There’s complete continuity [between the Obama and Trump administrations], and it is thanks to the vision and leadership of Vice President Biden,” Hochstein said in 2019. 

As vice president, Biden spoke at length about the EastMed project in a 2014 speech at the Atlantic Council where he cited Hochstein’s work by name. “The energy potential of the Eastern Mediterranean can also play significant strategic and economic dividends for the region itself and Europe as a whole,” he said at the time. 

During his time in the Obama administration, Hochstein also tried to resolve an ongoing dispute between Israel and Lebanon over the countries’ maritime border. 

“That is a file that he’s intimately aware of and involved with…when he was in the U.S. government,” said David Schenker, the Taube Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs in the Trump administration. “It’s a possibility for him to be involved again, if he sees any benefit for that.” 

Hochstein, who is a Modern Orthodox Jew, grew up in Israel. “He’s from Israel, so he kind of brings that to the forefront,” said Zweig.

Any work on energy security that Hochstein takes up could have broad implications for the Middle East. In the Obama administration, “he also played a key role on Israel-related energy security issues, which of course impacts directly Iran and Gulf dynamics,” Silverberg argued. 

“He was intricately involved in Iran sanctions and the JCPOA, in addition to the Israel portfolio,” Zweig noted, referring to Hochstein’s work on Iran energy sanctions throughout the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. As the U.S. attempts to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, energy sanctions could again become part of Hochstein’s portfolio. 

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