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Germany rushes to decouple itself from Russian gas

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Germany relies on Russia for about a third of its natural gas, which has turned out to be a big problem for Europe's largest economy as it tries to separate itself from Russia over the war in Ukraine. Germany is now scrambling to build its own infrastructure. But as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, time is not on its side.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Industrial-sized vehicles crisscross the port of Brunsbuttel as an oil tanker begins to offload its precious cargo. This port lies at the mouth of Germany's Elbe River along the North Sea. It's the entry to the Kiel Canal, the world's busiest artificial waterway. And it's also where Germany wants to build one of its first liquefied natural gas terminals.

FRANK SCHNABEL: It will be an important step towards just becoming partly independent of Russian gas. It will be difficult to become completely independent, but we have to start at some point.

SCHMITZ: Frank Schnabel is managing director of Brunsbuttel Harbor. He's been trying to get Germany to build a liquefied natural gas, or LNG, terminal here for years. And now the government is finally listening. That's because a third of the country's natural gas arriving by pipeline from Russia is now in jeopardy. Russia has cut the supply of gas on one of its main pipelines to Germany by nearly half, prompting Germany's government to urge citizens to take shorter showers and turn off their lights to save energy and to save money.

ANDREE STRACKE: But in a strong, industrialized country like Germany, it would be very tricky to maintain industries here on these price levels.

SCHMITZ: Andree Stracke, CEO of RWE Supply & Trading, says skyrocketing energy prices means the country needs to find a quick solution.

STRACKE: That means more LNG to bridge the period until more renewables come in and we can electrify the country further.

SCHMITZ: LNG is a gas that's cooled to a liquid state. That makes it easy to transport it by ship before it's turned back into gas. Stracke's company is in charge of installing a temporary LNG terminal, essentially a massive ship, here in the port of Brunsbuttel. It's 1 of 4 such terminals that Germany has chartered and hopes to have up and running before the end of the year. But not everyone's happy about this.

NORBERT PRALOW: (Through interpreter) I don't think Germany should be building any LNG terminals. There are studies that show we can do without them.

SCHMITZ: Norbert Pralow, a retired ship engineer, opens a cattle fence before climbing a grassy embankment overlooking the Brunsbuttel port. He shows me why he thinks constructing an LNG terminal here is a bad idea.

PRALOW: (Through interpreter) Over here, you can see a shut-down nuclear power plant where nuclear waste is still being stored. On this side, there's an incineration plant for fertilizer. A facility like this one exploded in Germany last year. Next to that is the town's chemical park, where they make adhesives, plastics and other supplies. Then there's an ammonia plant. And next to that is where they want to build an LNG terminal.

SCHMITZ: On top of that, the town of Brunsbuttel, population 14,000, is less than a mile away. Pralow and others are fighting against the construction of an LNG terminal here, but he admits it'll be an uphill battle. In May, Germany's parliament passed a law to fast-track the typically lengthy approval process for LNG terminals, eliminating the need for an environmental impact assessment. Constantin Zerger, lawyer for the environmental group Deutschland Umwelthilfe (ph), says this law may pave the way for a fossil fuel future.

CONSTANTIN ZERGER: And we really feel that this is going to lead into a fossil trap and into a new fossil lock-in, while this infrastructure will be there for the next 20, 30, 40 years. And the companies will want to use that. So that's going to be a huge problem.

SCHMITZ: Thanks to the new law, German energy companies now have plans to build up to 12 LNG projects to replace Russian gas. Zerger calls this overkill. He says RWE has already signed an agreement to import LNG from the U.S., where fracking remains legal.

ZERGER: Fracking is forbidden. It's banned in Germany, out of good reasons. And I can't see a reason why we should buy fracked gas and import that. It's a kind of environmental destruction that we don't want to see here and not anywhere else on this planet.

SCHMITZ: RWE's Andree Stracke says he can't rule out some of the gas will be derived from fracking. He says he'd prefer to solve this energy crisis with renewables, but given the present circumstances, it wouldn't be the quickest solution.

STRACKE: The coming winter is coming closer, and the question is, what are the alternatives? How quick can we install more renewables or connect to the German system? Because that would be the answer. It's either you save significant amount of energies and you don't heat up your homes in winter, which is not a real solution - close down industries is not a real solution. So therefore you need energy.

SCHMITZ: And he says LNG remains the most efficient solution. Germany's vice chancellor, Robert Habeck, seems to have arrived to the same conclusion, much to the chagrin of his political party. Habeck, one of the highest-ranking members of the Greens, a party devoted to eliminating fossil fuels from Germany's economy, has not only called for more LNG terminals, he's also calling on Germany to burn more coal so that Europe's largest economy is prepared for what many believe will be a long, cold winter.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Brunsbuttel, Germany. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.