Q&A with: Lawyer-activist Robert Backus
Attorney Robert Backus, of counsel to the Manchester firm of Backus, Meyer, Solomon & Branch, has a long history of activism on political and environmental issues. As counsel for the Seacoast Anti-Pollution League, he was a key figure in the legal and regulatory battles over the Seabrook nuclear plant in the 1970s and ‘80s. He also is president of the New Hampshire Campaign for Ratepayer Rights.
A Democrat, he challenged then-New Hampshire Senate President Ted Gatsas for the District 16 Senate seat last year, losing by 318 votes. At the time of this interview, he was said to be considering running for mayor of Manchester.
Q. Was it your interest in environmental issues that first attracted you to a career in law?
A. What really attracted me to a career in law was my problem with freshman chemistry in college. I was going to be a doctor. But yes, in law school I got quite committed to using law for desirable social change, as well as to keep food on the table.
Q. Do you still think we would be better off if the nuclear plant at Seabrook had not been built?
A. I do. You know, it’s not only a power producer, it’s a nuclear waste producer and a long-term storage (site) for nuclear waste in New Hampshire. You may recall when a nuclear waste dump was proposed for the Hillsborough-Henniker area in New Hampshire and the uproar over that. Well, we do have a nuclear waste dump at Seabrook.
Q. But the citizens of Seabrook don’t seem to be upset about it.
A. I think when something’s happened, you get used to it, you adjust to it. The other thing we were concerned about was a catastrophic accident, and we’re all happy to say that has not happened and hopefully never will, (that) we will never have a Chernobyl-type disaster in this country. But of course we could.
In addition, you have the threat of these being pre-positioned terrorist targets. If a terrorist group wanted to trump what they did in New York and Washington five years ago, what could be more inviting than a nuclear plant?
Q. But without nuclear energy, wouldn’t we be even more dependent on coal and oil-burning plants that pollute the air?
A. At some point we’re going to have to change our energy system to go in another direction entirely and that point is coming up very fast. What’s taken the place of nuclear in recent years is gas. Almost all the new plants since we entered this deregulation of new energy projects have been gas plants. And they were all built when gas was plentiful and cheap. Now it’s not necessarily all that plentiful and it’s certainly not cheap. So, we put all our eggs in the wrong basket again.
Q. What issues are you pushing with Campaign for Ratepayers Rights?
A. We’re advocating for renewable energy, wind and wood principally. And we will be advocating for more energy efficiency, things like real-time meter reading for people.
Q. What is that?
A. It’s a meter – they do exist — that would tell you how much energy you’re using at any one time, so you can defer your energy use and get cost savings from it.
Apparently, down in Connecticut, they’ve been installing these meters throughout the Connecticut Light and Power service area. And that’s something we think is a very exciting opportunity to cut demand.
Q. What public policies do you want to see to promote renewable energy sources?
A. I’m happy to say one of the most important ones has just been passed and signed into law by the governor, and that’s the renewable portfolio standard. That says a certain percentage of electrical energy has to be obtained by renewable energy sources by 2015, I think it is. And utilities will have to find the resources themselves or buy credits to get to that total.
Q. Will that cost more?
A. I don’t know if I can say. New capacity costs more, whatever it is.
Q. I would think if it were more economical to supply energy that way, the utilities would be doing it on their own.
A. Maybe in part, but it’s also hard just to get people to do things in new ways. But we have had wood plants built that have operated successfully for a number of years. Public Service now has a boiler over at the Schiller plant converted to burning wood, 50 megawatts’ worth.
Wind — if we can get these things sited — has the great advantage that it doesn’t have any cost for fuel. And there’s been a lot of great technological advancement in wind energy recently. Most of it, unfortunately, is coming from overseas, because we’ve given up our lead on these things in this country.
Q. How would you rate Public Service of New Hampshire as a utility today?
A. Vastly improved. Today they are providing power at, I think, the lowest cost or almost the lowest cost of any New England utility. And the reason is that Public Service today is the only New England utility that owns its own generation.
Q. What do you think of energy deregulation thus far? How is it working?
A. I think it’s been a disaster. It’s been an unmitigated disaster.
Number one, the object was to give us lower rates and customer choice. No residential customers have any choice whatsoever. And that’s pretty much true of small commercial businesses like our law firm. If you’re a great big industrial customer, you may have somebody who wants to serve you.
So there’s no choice, and it has not lowered rates here or anywhere else in the country. The other thing is, once we deregulated, a lot of people saw a chance to get big money fast, and they made them all gas plants and that was unfortunate. With the regulatory model, we can ask for some diversity in supply and we need that for a whole variety of reasons.
Q. So the free market model, with companies competing in price for customers, doesn’t work in the energy market?
A. It could work theoretically — emphasize theoretically — if we had a big surplus of supply so that the suppliers are able to compete with each other. But we don’t. Supply is very tight. And we’re going into a capacity deficit within the next year — at most, two.
Q. If you don’t run for mayor of Manchester, what are you going to be doing for the rest of your career?
A. Number one, I would expect to get involved in the presidential primary for somebody. I haven’t decided yet.
Secondly, I want to write my history of Seabrook. I do believe it’s important to tell the story, because it’s a good story. And the cast of characters is incredible: Mel Thomson, John Sununu, William Loeb. And, of course, it’s a cautionary tale.
Q. What do you think the moral is?
A. Pride goeth before a fall — don’t bite off more than you can chew. And hubris is a terrible thing.