EPA admin, a climate change skeptic, makes first visit to Morro Bay

EPA regional administrator Mike Stoker and Lexie Bell, Executive Director of the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, take questions from the media during Stoker’s Thursday visit to Morro Bay.
EPA regional administrator Mike Stoker and Lexie Bell, Executive Director of the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, take questions from the media during Stoker’s Thursday visit to Morro Bay. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Less than three months after his controversial appointment, the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator in charge of California visited the Morro Bay National Estuary.

Mike Stoker’s visit Thursday marked the first time an EPA administrator had visited the site.

Stoker, along with Morro Bay Estuary Program executive director Lexie Bell, toured the estuary and hiked a hill in the area.

During the tour, Bell said she explained to Stoker the importance of the estuary to the community of Morro Bay.

Bell said the estuary program relies on funding from the EPA, along with matching grants from other agencies and donors, to do work that includes outreach, education, restoration and water quality monitoring.

Stoker’s visit comes in the midst of questions about his qualifications for office, his views on human-caused climate change and his lack of managerial experience.

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As administrator for Region 9, Stoker is directly responsible for more than 700 employees in four states — Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada — as well as the Pacific U.S. territories and the military bases in Japan and South Korea.

Stoker was appointed to the post on May 18 by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July due to mounting scandals.

But though Stoker’s record includes lengthy public service — Santa Barbara County supervisor from 1986 to 1994, chairman of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board from 1995 to 2000 and California deputy secretary of state from 2000 to 2002 — he has very little direct managerial experience.

He also has ties to the agriculture and oil industries. He worked as a lobbyist for trade group UnitedAg and as a spokesman and consultant for Santa Maria-based oil company Greka Oil & Gas, now known as HVI Cat Canyon.

Stoker’s lack of managerial experience came up when the Los Angeles Times interviewed former Santa Barbara County GOP Chair Dale Francisco, who opposed Stoker’s appointment to a management-level government position.

“You can be the world’s most wonderful guy, but without any management experience, you should not be managing as large an organization as EPA Region 9. Period,” Francisco told the Los Angeles Times.

On Thursday, Stoker said that Francisco “was very frustrated with me because I would not support him for things” involving the management of the Santa Barbara County GOP.

Stoker said he “ran the county of Santa Barbara with 3,500 employees” and also supervised employees in his other positions.

“I stand by my record, everywhere I’ve been in public service,” he said.

As Region 9 administrator, Stoker oversees two coastal states and hundreds of coastal communities, such as Morro Bay, that are at risk of rising sea levels as a result of global warming. The threat of sea level rise was, among other reasons, why the California Coastal Commission ordered the city of Morro Bay to relocate its wastewater treatment plant.

However, Stoker questions whether climate change is caused by humans — despite a 2009 study that found that at least 97 percent of actively published climate researchers believe humans are the primary cause of rising global temperatures.

Stoker said he believes Mother Nature — in the form of volcanoes and wildfires such as the Thomas Fire — could be a greater contributor to climate change than humans.

“That fire had a lot to do with global warming,” he said.

A growing body of scientific evidence points the other way; a 2015 study linked California’s worsening wildfires, at least in part, to rising global temperatures.

Stoker said he supports U.S. efforts to eliminate carbon emissions but said China and India need to do so, as well.

Both China and India signed on to the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions. President Donald Trump, who once tweeted that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” announced his intent to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement by November 2020.

“I have nothing to do with the global warming debate. That’s done in Washington (D.C.),” Stoker said.

Stoker said he sees his role as that of ambassador. He vowed to visit as much of Region 9 as possible, including all 148 Native American tribes that fall under its purview; he estimated that he spends 80 percent of his time on the road.

Stoker said his top priorities while in office are to improve clean water infrastructure on tribal lands and Pacific island territories, work to stop the flow of sewage from Mexico into U.S. waters and beaches and overturn a federal ruling he said bans the EPA from using drones in fire prevention efforts.

When he leaves office, Stoker said he thinks his staff will say, “Regardless of what I’ve said on the issue of global warming ... they’ll probably be saying, ‘Job really well done.’ ”

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler