Sometimes the best that can be said is that things can always get worse. That’s my initial reaction to news this week that Mike Stoker — Santa Barbara’s perpetual and perennial Republican candidate — is about to be anointed czar of the Environmental Protection Agency’s West Coast branch, otherwise known as Region 9. This may qualify as one small step forward for Stoker, but it’s also one giant leap back for mankind. When Stoker’s appointment is finalized, perhaps we can lay to rest the tired old line about foxes protecting chicken coops. When Stoker ascends the Region 9 throne, any chickens still alive will commit suicide by crossing the road in mass numbers.
Stoker and I have been threatening to eat Dodger Dogs together for about 30 years. Maybe now we will. Once upon a time, Stoker was the leading man for what the Republican Party called its “Brat Pack.” Over time, Stoker grew long of tooth and had run for every office — Congress, State Assembly, State Senate — short of county assessor. He lost them all, emerging as the GOP’s equivalent of the Bayonne Bleeder, absorbing blows from a steady stream of Democrats with astonishing good cheer. Always on the prowl, Stoker was that rare Republican who actually liked talking to reporters. He always called back. He rarely complained about what we wrote. He was shrewd and candid. He was fun.
Like I said, it could be worse.
But not really by much.
Stoker made his bones in the early ’90s as 5th District county supervisor, leading a take-no-prisoners assault on the county’s Air Pollution Control District (APCD). When Stoker and crew were done, the APCD was not just eviscerated but skinned alive. Its two chief executives — Bill Master and Jim Ryerson — were professionally decapitated, as Stoker engineered a massive reorganization of their department that left them conspicuously with no chair, no office, and no desk even in the hallway. In the wonky world of air pollution politics, Master and Ryerson qualified as genuine giants. Brilliant, tough, and ridiculously audacious, they successfully lobbied Congress to change the Clean Air Act — over strenuous opposition from the oil industry — to give the APCD authority to regulate air pollution generated by offshore oil platforms located in federal waters. At that time, the oil industry regarded our channel as the second coming of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, to be plundered accordingly.
Later, the APCD would turn its regulatory sights on onshore oil facilities in North County, demanding stricter air emission controls and imposing stiffer fines. In one year, they collected $1 million. This got the oil companies’ attention. It got them mad. Stoker and the conservative majority he helped cultivate and get elected struck back. They crafted a transparently dubious plan to consolidate the APCD with the county’s Environmental Health Services and the Agricultural Commissioner’s office. Then they put the county ag commissioner in charge of the bureaucratic Frankenstein. Only on paper did this plan make a lick of sense. In practice, it triggered a nervous breakdown on the part of the ag commissioner, who took a leave of absence from which he never returned.
But Stoker made his point.
As likable as Stoker is, his history is well worth remembering. As Montecitans find themselves still clawing out of January’s deadly orgasm of mud and rock, Santa Barbarans have discovered climate change isn’t just something that happens in places like Haiti or to skinny polar bear cubs searching for ice. It happens to the richest people on the planet living in the most beautiful town in the world. A study released last week by UCLA indicates that Southern California’s naturally extreme weather oscillations are growing even more extreme; droughts and floods will become more frequent and more intense and last longer. Events that used to happen once every 200 years will soon take place every 40 or 50. In fact, they already have. We already forget that 2016’s Sherpa Fire was followed in January 2017 by pounding rains that triggered a debris flow severe enough to wash campground cabins and cars several hundred yards downstream. Two in two years? Yet, Stoker’s EPA boss-to-be, Scott Pruitt — with whom California is now at war over tailpipe emissions — has expunged all reference to “climate change” from all EPA documents. In Santa Barbara, it goes without saying.
Stoker has yet to explain his views on such matters or his thoughts about the avalanche of scandals — each more venal and grandiose than the next — that attach to Pruitt on a daily basis. Stoker declined to comment until his appointment — first reported by former Santa Barbara Independent writer Kelsey Brugger, now with E&E News — is officially announced.
One can go blind searching Stoker’s record for a silver lining. Most recently, he functioned as lawyer and company spokesperson for perhaps the single worst oil company ever to do business in Santa Barbara County, Greka Oil. Greka amassed a record of 1,700 environmental violations as its pipelines and storage containers leaked 140,000 gallons of oil into streams, creeks, and the farm fields its pipelines traversed. That doesn’t include the cancer-causing chemicals — PCBs — it failed to contain. Greka inspired the county supervisors to vote — 4-0 — to enact a “habitual offender program” that enabled the county to impose even higher fines on industrial polluters with chronic violations. Greka agreed to pay the county $2.1 million in fines and penalties. But not before Greka’s CEO would reportedly attempt to strangle the county counsel prosecuting the case, coming within a few inches of her throat. The EPA — where Stoker would rule the roost — has sued Greka multiple times for many millions of dollars for violating the Clean Water Act. As Greka’s attorney, Stoker denounced the EPA action as a federal overreach. As head of Region 9, he could do more than talk.
If appointed, Stoker’s someone you could at least talk with, the devil you could dance with. Maybe. Don’t forget Stoker’s also the guy who started the “Lock ’er up!” chant about Hillary Clinton at the GOP convention two years ago.
Could things get even worse? No doubt. But not so you’d notice.
Correction: May 5 — This story originally stated Greka Energy paid half the fines and penalties owed to the county. The county, in fact, was paid the full $2.1 million.