Environment / Nature

Q&A: The Monterey oil refinery that never came to be

Authors Glenn Church and Kathy McKenzie speak about their new book, which chronicles the fight to keep Moss Landing from becoming a major West Coast port.

In 1965, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors made a decision that seems unimaginable today: they greenlit a plan put forward by Humble Oil to build a major refinery on the coast at the midpoint of Monterey Bay, which is now a protected marine sanctuary. It was the culmination of a plan that began in 1950, when Moss Landing was designated as an industrial center and the Moss Landing Power Plant was built.

It took a concentrated campaign by environmentalists, farmers and local residents to defeat Humble’s plans and set a standard for how to wage a war to preserve natural spaces and resources. This fight to save the bay has been chronicled in a new book by Glenn Church and Kathy McKenzie, “Humbled: How California’s Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin.”

James Perry, executive director of the Monterey County Historical Society, described the book as “a cautionary case study on two haunting words: ‘what if?’ Had Humble actually moved in, other oil industries would have joined them. At that point, it becomes a matter of not ‘if’ but ‘when’ a disaster will happen.”

Glenn Church and Kathryn McKenzie. Photo courtesy of the authors
Glenn Church and Kathryn McKenzie. Photo courtesy of the authors.

Perry praised the meticulous work that went into the book: “The breadth and depth of their research is immense. They conducted extensive interviews with several of the principles who were involved in the controversy on both sides and had a trove of unpublished original documents. You can say, with some level of confidence, the story they have told here is fact.”

BenitoLink was able to read part of the book and interview the authors.

BENITOLINK: Where did the idea to industrialize the bay come from?

CHURCH: Part of what we uncovered was something called the ‘Moss Landing Area Development Plan’ which would develop an area including Elkhorn Slough and the Pajaro through Castroville and on to Highway 101. There were going to be thousands of acres of development and it started with the Power Plant at Moss Landing. It would have turned Moss Landing into one of the biggest ports on the West Coast. At that time Humble Oil was one of the biggest oil producers in the United States and they still are—today we know them as Exxon.

What about this story captured your interest?

CHURCH: My father, Warren Church, took office as a supervisor in 1965, just a month before this controversy came up. It was in his district and he was the most involved supervisor dealing with it. Over the years we discussed a lot of things, and we would talk about this issue. He had all his notes; I had five inches of file folders with information he had saved. We did interviews with some of the reporters who covered this as well and they had kept all their notes and articles too. So we began with a solid basis of information.

How would things be different today if it had gone through?

MCKENZIE: It is all conjecture of course, but you would have thousands of acres of developments all along Monterey Bay. The air and water quality would have suffered. And we would not have the same awareness of the need to protect the bay. One of the big things people were concerned about then was the potential for air pollution, which would have had an impact on the crops in the area. A lot of people don’t remember that Los Angeles used to be a major agricultural area until air pollution started damaging the crops and making them unsalable.

"Humbled" book cover. Photo courtesy of the authors
“Humbled” book cover. Photo courtesy of the authors.

What made the plan appealing?

CHURCH: At the time, Monterey was growing at a rate of 5% a year. There was a tremendous need for infrastructure to support the growth. It caused an increase in property taxes and a lot of people including growers were thinking “we need a new source of tax income to help with the greater demand on government resources.” The Planning Commission claimed that no one over the three years it took to develop the plan ever stepped forward to object. Humble did a study that showed two-thirds of the people in the county were in favor of it. The only parts of the county that were opposing it were Carmel, Pebble Beach and Monterey.

How did the opposition begin?

CHURCH: The people who organized against this were former industrialists. One of the main leaders was an executive at Chevron. These were the people who were making these developments all over the country. But when it came here, they said, “Well, we don’t want to look out toward Moss Landing and see smokestacks and satellite industries coming in.” Traditionally they have been credited with stopping Humble but it is a lot more complicated than that. The fight became a statewide and a national issue. It was one of the first battles of the environmental age and has had repercussions far beyond Monterey.

MCKENZIE: Just after this happened there were some major developments, like the Santa Barbara oil spill. With the introduction of Earth Day, people began to catch on to the idea that the environment needed to be protected. People realized they had a say and a voice and could take steps against it. 


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.