by Carolyn Shea
"Who owns the air?"
That question, posed in an Evergreen lecture hall during the 1970s energy crisis, propelled Doug Luckerman '79, then 21 years old, into a career in environmental and Indian law.
Luckerman, who had dropped out of his Chicago high school and earned his GED to gain admission to Evergreen, was enrolled in a class on alternative energy systems when the issue came up. "If you put up solar panels on your house," he recapped, "can your neighbor add a third floor on his house and block the sun so you're panels don't work? Can your neighbor take away your right to the sun? Can someone block someone else's solar or wind?"
A fan of Sherlock Holmes and mystery stories, Luckerman was intrigued. What did the law say? To find out, he did a research project, which led to an individual contract with an attorney in Olympia, who loaded him up with legal questions and sent him off to the law library at the state capital to research the answers. "I spent hours and days in the law library" he says. "It was like being a detective!"
During this same period, a group of about 75 Evergreen students involved in the anti-nuke Crabshell Alliance were arrested while protesting the two Satsop nuclear power plants being constructed a half-hour from Olympia by the Washington Public Power Supply System (or WPPSS, which later came to be called "Whoops"). Luckerman's mentor became the lead defense attorney for the activists.
"My independent study turned into a nine-month project building a case to defend these students," he says. In the process, he learned how to do legal research and briefs, and lined up leading nuclear energy experts such as Helen Caldicott and the head of the Union of Concerned Scientists to testify on the students' behalf. Then, in March 1979, the nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island power plant occurred, and soon afterward, the county prosecutor dropped the trespassing charges that had been leveled against the students. "He said, ‘There isn't a jury in this country that would convict these kids,'" recalled Luckerman, adding, "It was bittersweet." All the hard work he had put into their defense came to an unexpected conclusion, but the students got off scot-free and Luckerman knew he wanted to go to law school to become an environmental attorney.
Before making that leap, he accomplished a few other things: First, he graduated. Then, he and a friend bought and operated the Gnu Deli, which offered French food and live music in downtown Olympia, for two-and-a-half years. Then, he got a job working as a paralegal in Portland, Ore., where he prepared for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
"Then, I got the travel bug again," says Luckerman, who had discovered Evergreen on an earlier excursion. One day after taking the LSAT, he drove his Volkswagen camper "Pinkie" to Los Angeles to visit his former Gnu partner. From there, he flew to London and spent several months hopscotching from Israel to France to Belgium to the Netherlands. Upon returning to London, he came across a "really bad cookie" being advertised as an American chocolate chip cookie. When his recurrent complaints about this cookie were met with, "Make a better one or shut up," he did the former—evidently deliciously (and with Belgian chocolate)—and for a brief spell, ran a profitable business off it, with the famous luxury department store Harrod's as his first customer.
Alas, this enterprise ended when his father informed him that a notice had arrived in the mail saying his LSAT was about to expire. Luckerman returned to the U.S., found Northeastern University Law School, applied and got in (at age 30), and three years later, earned his Juris Doctor degree. To pay off his school loans, he toiled in corporate law for a couple of years until he was hired to work in the legal division of the Environmental Protection Agency's Boston office.
For the next decade, Luckerman worked on the kind of advocacy cases he dreamed about when he first decided to go to law school, including negotiating Superfund cleanups at the Newport Naval Station in Rhode Island and Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts. He won an important case against General Electric, which was compelled to clean up the Housatonic River, which its Pittsfield manufacturing facility had contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
He also began working with New England tribes, initially helping them set up their own environmental programs. "I got an Indian law education by working at EPA," he says. In 1995, his proposal to start a special tribal office in the region was accepted by the agency. "It changed things for the better for them," says Luckerman, who was assigned to be the tribal legal coordinator.
Based on these experiences, several years later he built an independent practice specializing in Indian law and tribal issues. "I went from environmental law to working on sovereignty, treaty rights, labor and child welfare cases, negotiating agreements between states and tribes, and supporting economic development projects and congressional liaison work." He has represented tribes from the MicMac of northern Maine to the Naragansett of southern Rhode Island.
Luckerman was instrumental in securing numerous victories for his clients, including helping one tribe acquire more than 600 acres of ancestral land that had been once been part of a former Air Force base; another get a six-figure settlement for damage to its Martha's Vineyard fishing grounds by a tanker oil spill; and yet another create a tribal seafood cooperative.
Lately, the Lexington, Massachusetts attorney has been doing the legwork for a new venture: a soon-to-launch online marketplace for residential and small business consumers in states that have deregulated the sale of electricity and/or natural gas. Sixteen states with more than 50 million households have restructured their power markets to allow for competing sellers, which means consumers pick among multiple energy providers instead of a single utility company.
Called CurrentChoice, the site will enable these customers to comparison shop, connect them (for free) with lower-priced suppliers, and arm them with useful information to navigate the muddle of the deregulated power industry landscape and reduce their energy use. In August, the firm was a finalist in the "Go for the Gold UK" business development competition sponsored by UK Trade & Investment, a unit of the British government. Luckerman, who is CurrentChoice's legal counsel and senior director, says, "We want to help people save money, make informed decisions and find ways to conserve." It's a logical next step for the student whose alternative energy research at Evergreen sparked his career in environmental and tribal law.