Environmental groups and Sen. Dianne Feinstein are raising concerns about the appointment of former Santa Barbara County Supervisor Mike Stoker as head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 9 office, while others say he's the right pick for the job.

Stoker was formally sworn in to lead the Region 9 office on Monday, and will help implement environmental protections and regulations in an area that includes California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and United States territories in the Pacific.

Long active in the region’s politics, Stoker first entered the political arena in the 1980s to oppose a ballot measure that would have limited offshore oil drilling.

As county supervisor from 1986 to 1994, Stoker was part of an effort to overhaul the staff and budget of the Air Pollution Control District. At the time, the district was attempting to ramp up fines on polluters. Stoker argued that the district was overreaching its regulatory authority. 

In 2007, Stoker was hired to represent Santa Maria-based Greka Energy.

Alena Simon, Santa Barbara County Organizer for Food and Water Watch, said she was concerned about Stoker’s appointment, given his background as a former spokesman for Greka Energy.

Greka Energy — now known as HVI Cat Canyon — has long had issues with environmental compliance. In 2011, the company agreed to pay over $2 million to Santa Barbara County as compensation for oil spills that occurred in 2007 and 2008. In 2011, Greka was sued by the EPA and other federal agencies for pollution from its operations.

“Greka is one of, if not the single worst, polluter in the region,” Simon said. “It’s ironic that someone that was a spokesperson for a company sued by the EPA for violating the Clean Water Act is now being selected to lead the agency.” 

Environmental Defense Center Chief Counsel Linda Krop also pointed to Stoker’s stint with Greka Energy as a cause for concern.

“He emerged as one of the main spokespersons for the oil industry,” Krop said. “He’s definitely worked for industry, represented industry and in that capacity, he has opposed regulations on their operations so that’s very concerning,” Krop said.

Stoker, however, defended his role with Greka, saying his position was aimed at bringing them up to standard.

“I was called in after Greka had some accidents and I was called to get them up to standard — to get them to operate as a responsible company. The analogy I would make is how after BP had their oil spill — I was brought in to clean up that mess.”

Stoker added, “Since I left, they've not had one oil spill.”

Stoker, who served as a delegate for then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 Republican National Convention, will oversee hundreds of EPA staff in his new position.

On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator, recommending that Stoker not be permitted to lead the Region 9 office without relocating to San Francisco.

Stoker has expressed reluctance to move full-time to San Francisco, where the Region 9 office is headquartered.

In her letter, Feinstein asked whether it was feasible for Stoker to work mostly from a satellite office and whether taxpayers would be expected to pay for Stoker’s travel to San Francisco to meet with EPA staff.

“As a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, I have a responsibility to ensure that the funds sent to the EPA are spent in a responsible and judicious manner,” the senator wrote. “The Environmental Protection Agency should be spending as much of its money as possible on protecting the environment.”

Stoker said he expects to be at the Region 9 headquarters six to seven days each month and the Los Angeles office six to seven days per month. The rest of the time, Stoker said, he expects to work while traveling.

“Sometimes, your office is your laptop and your telephone,” Stoker said.

Following his eight-year stint as county supervisor, Stoker chaired the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board from 1995 to 2000 and served as California's deputy secretary of state from 2000 to 2002.

Most recently, Stoker served as director of government affairs for UnitedAg, the second largest agricultural association in California.

Andy Caldwell, executive director of Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, said Stoker had the right experience and temperament for the position.

“We think he's an excellent pick,” Caldwell said. “I’ve known [Stoker] for 30 years, including when he was on the board of supervisors. Way back then, Santa Barbara County had the largest air control district staff and budget in the state. And [Stoker] and the other supervisors reduced the size of staff by half. He was able to demonstrate that throwing more money and fees at a problem isn’t always the solution. We should be having that experience nationally.”

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed