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Lithuania has become the 1st European country to stop using Russian gas

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As Russia's war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, European countries are scrambling to wean themselves off of Russian gas. The Baltic nation of Lithuania has become the first to do so. NPR's Rob Schmitz brings us this story on how it did it and how it's helping its neighbors do the same.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The first sign that all was not good in Lithuania's energy sector came a decade ago. That's when Russian energy company Gazprom, which supplied Lithuania with all its gas, suddenly increased the price of it by more than 30%. Within a year, Lithuania was paying more for gas than any country in Europe.

INGRIDA SIMONYTE: At some point, gas prices became so punitive in this country that the government then in power decided that we need to decouple from Gazprom or to have an alternative source of supply.

SCHMITZ: Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte remembers how the country's then-government decided to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on the Baltic Sea - a message to Russia that if it set the price too high, Lithuania could simply import gas from elsewhere.

SIMONYTE: And this terminal started functioning in the end of 2014, and the prices of Gazprom immediately went down.

SCHMITZ: Video from 2014 shows a massive ship known as a floating storage and regasification unit arriving at the Port of Klaipeda while hundreds of people crowd around to take a look. The ship was called The Independence, and it forced Gazprom to adjust its prices back to market rates. The company also brought down its gas prices for neighboring Latvia and Estonia. Darius Silenskis is CEO of Klaipedos Nafta, the company that runs the LNG terminal.

DARIUS SILENSKIS: So this means we created a market, and we, let's say, prevented monopolist approach from the Gazprom.

SCHMITZ: He says the same thing happened years later in 2020, when the Baltic states connected their pipeline with Finland. Gazprom was again forced to lower its gas price for Finland to compete with the new supply. Now, with much of Europe scrambling to wean itself off of Russian gas, Silenskis says Lithuania's decades-long journey to energy independence now seems prescient.

SILENSKIS: Because we are closer, because we are smaller, because we are blackmailed, because we have been occupied for 40 years by the Soviets - so we were always cautious about the suppliers from Russia, and that's why we did homework earlier.

SCHMITZ: And all that homework did more than lower the price of Russian gas. It prompted Gazprom and others to sell off their shares of Lithuania's gas pipeline. And now Lithuania's government owns it. And in the dense forest outside the capital of Vilnius is the heart of this pipeline - a gas compressor station that, when it opened earlier this month, connected the pipeline to the rest of Europe for the first time. Nemunas Biknius, CEO of Amber Grid, the company that manages Lithuania's pipeline, shows me a map of it.

NEMUNAS BIKNIUS: And the pipeline that goes towards Poland - that 500 kilometers pipeline - that 165 kilometers are in our country, and the rest is in Poland. It starts here.

SCHMITZ: This gas travels from the LNG terminal and on to Poland, a project whose timing for Warsaw was immaculate. It opened less than a week after Russia cut off its gas deliveries to Poland. Biknius says he's been receiving calls from countries throughout Europe about the new pipeline.

BIKNIUS: We are as one of the options, not the biggest option for the EU to receive gas through the terminal. And absolutely everybody is looking for all the ways that are possible to provide gas.

SCHMITZ: And as much of Europe is now working overtime to line up alternative gas supplies, Biknius says the lesson for everyone is clear - don't put all your energy eggs in one basket. It's a lesson much of Europe is learning the hard way. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Lithuania.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLUM VILLAGE SONG, "FALL IN LOVE") 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.