“Of all the land use decisions for the California Central Coast, Humble Oil was the most significant. If it was successful, it would have ruined everything.”
— Congressman Sam Farr (Retired)
This excerpt from the recently published nonfiction book “Humbled: How California’s Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin” is adapted from its third chapter, which sets the scene for the county’s bitter division over the Humble Oil refinery project in 1965.
The building of the Humble Oil refinery was the first step in the implementation of the Moss Landing Area Development Plan, created in 1956. It encompassed a 60-square-mile area for residential, recreational, commercial and industrial use. If it had gone through, it would have changed the look and feel of the entire Monterey Bay area. The preservation of Elkhorn Slough and Monterey Bay would likely have never happened, tourism would have been impacted, and agricultural crops would have suffered smog damage.
Although Humble Oil would get its permit from Monterey County, the refinery would never be built, and “Humbled” details just why this happened. Written by Glenn Church and Voices of Monterey Bay editor Kathryn McKenzie, the book is now available through area bookstores and online booksellers.
Church and McKenzie will be featured in book talks hosted by the Monterey County Historical Society on Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. and Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. to talk about this highly charged period in the region’s history. To register for the free online event, email firstname.lastname@example.org. During the book talks, 25 percent of all book purchases at vista-verde-publishing.com will be donated to the historical society.
The Gathering Storm
February 15 – April 10, 1965
“We can build a good, clean sweet-smelling refinery.”
— J. Prince Warner, vice president of manufacturing, Humble Oil Co.
For the United States, 1965 was a turbulent year. The great economic post-World War II boom was slowly winding down. The country’s main adversary, the Soviet Union, had amassed a huge nuclear arsenal and engaged in an increasingly active foreign policy with surrogates to upend the Western ways of democracy and capitalism. The Soviets still led the way in the space race, and in March completed the first spacewalk. The United States, now deep in its Gemini program, always seemed to lag a step behind the USSR.
Martin Luther King Jr. joined with other civil rights activists against discrimination in the South and faced intensifying violence by diehard segregationists. Civil rights activists disappeared, turning up dead days later. Amid all this, President Lyndon Johnson, fresh off a massive landslide victory against Barry Goldwater, forced through the landmark Voting Rights Act and signed it in August. With his mandate, Johnson also began to escalate the Vietnam War by steadily increasing the number of American troops to Southeast Asia. As the year wore on, anti-war protests erupted across the nation.
It was a tumultuous year for the Monterey Bay area as well. The bracero program ended. A huge labor shortage left crops rotting in the fields. Salinas Valley Strawberries, the region’s largest strawberry grower, had just 482 pickers and claimed it needed 2,000 more. More than 1,300 residents turned out to give a hand in the harvest. In Santa Cruz, the University of California opened a new campus. At Moss Landing, PG&E prepared to step up its “Mighty Moss” power plant expansion by building two new 500-foot-high smokestacks.
In Carmel Valley, wrangling over a school operated by folk singer Joan Baez would eventually result in a contentious clash at the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. Baez’s Institute for the Study of Non-Violence raised hackles among residents, which saw the school as dangerous to the image of Carmel Valley, as well as their property values. The school’s use permit would be upheld later in the year by a 3-2 vote of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, with supervisors Tom Hudson, Warren Church and Arthur Atteridge voting yes, and no votes coming from supervisors Harold Henry and Andy Anderson.
February 15, 1965, was a fair day along the Monterey Bay. With the temperatures in the mid-60s and the winds light, it was not unusual for that time of year. The newspaper headlines that day must have intrigued many people as they announced a new industry coming to the region, but few could imagine the tempest that would soon erupt over the issue, one that would last well into the following year.
That morning, J. Prince Warner, vice president of manufacturing for Humble Oil (now known as ExxonMobil), announced the purchase of a 444-acre site bordering Highway 1 and Moro Cojo Slough in Moss Landing. Humble planned a $50 million, 50,000-barrel refinery covering a bit over one-quarter of the property.
Humble officials hoped it would take less than a couple of months to get the permits finalized so that they could move forward. They were already targeting approval from the Monterey County Planning Commission on March 30 and hoped to appear before the Board of Supervisors on April 5. That would allow engineering surveys and technical testing to commence, which Warner estimated “are expected to cost in excess of a million dollars” and would take a year to complete.
With its deepwater port, the developing Moss Landing industrial center appeared welcoming to Humble representatives. Local representatives, especially from Monterey County Industrial Development Inc., had assisted and guided the site selection. Humble had studied the Moss Landing site for a long time. While Humble was the largest producer of petroleum products in the United States, the company did not have a large presence on the West Coast. The Moss Landing site intended to seize that opportunity to expand into new markets.
“Good refinery sites are hard to come by on the Pacific Coast,” Warner said, “We have looked from Puget Sound to San Diego, and we believe the balance at Moss Landing will fit into our picture quite well.”
R.A. Winslow, assistant general manager of Humble manufacturing, concurred at a meeting with the Watsonville Chamber of Commerce:
“Deep water inshore was a prime consideration. There are few ports in the world where modern deep-draught tankers can be handled. San Francisco — Richmond they have to be lightered.”
Lightering is the process of transferring oil from a larger ship to a smaller vessel for the purpose of offloading on shore. It was a common practice at the refineries along the relatively shallow San Francisco Bay waters.
Three years earlier, Humble had hired Bechtel Corporation to locate a suitable site for its new refinery. Moss Landing was the No. 1 site between Vancouver and San Diego. There were a lot of desirable features including the pre-existing industrial zoning, the nearby rail lines and central location in the state, but it was the deepwater port that really drove Humble to Moss Landing.
Deepwater meant larger tankers. Larger tankers drove transportation costs down. The result was a cheaper refined product. Humble saw the advantage that would give the company as it tried to crack the California market.
“We want the cleanest refinery you can imagine … an oil factory today is a much better neighbor than other types of industries.” J. Prince Warner, vice president of manufacturing for Humble Oil
Humble had recently acquired the rights to Wilmington Field off the shores of Long Beach. Estimates placed the oil field at one billion barrels. Moss Landing was conveniently located just three hundred miles away so that Humble could fulfill its promise that it would use mainly oil derived from California. Humble estimated that three or four domestic tankers would arrive per month and one or two from the Middle East or elsewhere. All this might have been true with a 50,000-barrel-per-day refinery, but as the refinery expanded, more foreign oil and oil from Alaska would arrive in supertankers.
Two years earlier, Humble anonymously purchased the land for the refinery with the aid of a third party. Rumors intensified about the mysterious buyer when leases for the artichoke growers on the property were not renewed. Despite the initial secrecy, Humble promised to be a good neighbor. They were aware that there might be some opposition.
“We want everyone to know what we plan,” explained Warner. “We want the cleanest refinery you can imagine … an oil factory today is a much better neighbor than other types of industries.”
Humble officials reassured the public that the air pollution from such a plant would not be noticeable. At a luncheon with the Monterey County Industrial Development directors, Jack Gardner, Humble’s manager of fuel products and general planning, assured them that Humble would “bend over backwards” to fit into the community and “will meet every requirement regarding air and water pollution.” MCID was the lead group promoting industrial development in the county.
The tax base would be large. Local jobs, at least for the construction, would be available. Monterey County Assessor Donald Stewart estimated that the Humble refinery would bring in $1 million in tax revenues. Humble’s promise must have sounded too good to be true to some people. Still, to most of those who read that day’s news, Humble promised a broad road to prosperity.
Tom Hudson, chair of the Board of Supervisors, sat down with Humble officials for breakfast prior to their announcement. Hudson’s initial position was neutral.
“I have no position now regarding the plans,” Hudson said, “but I, for one, must be convinced that the location of the plant in the county will be an asset without cost for our people.”
Humble asserted that their new refineries were non-polluting, but Hudson “wanted absolute proof that a refinery can be built smog-free.”
Humble promised that.
“We can build a good, clean sweet-smelling refinery,” Warner emphasized at Humble’s initial Monterey County Board of Supervisors’ meeting, while claiming that air pollution instruments would not be able to detect anything originating from the refinery.
When pressed by Supervisors Andy Anderson and Harold Henry on wastewater, Humble had an answer for that too. Warner claimed the water used in the refining process was “neutralized.” Warner referred to Humble’s Baytown, Texas, refinery, claiming that the water leaving the refinery was cleaner than the water entering it from the Gulf of Mexico. As a bonus, Warner stated that the fishing was better where the wastewater discharged.
Humble had a promise for every concern, and a grandiose plan as well. The refinery would use only about one quarter of the site, “leaving plenty of room for expansion,” said Gardner, who envisioned the refined products leaving the site by ship, rail, tank truck and possibly a pipeline.
The too-good-to-be-true claims of undetectable emissions, discharged wastewater in which fish thrived, and water that was cleaner than nature’s own probably helped insert seeds of doubt in the minds of some. Humble appeared to be open and above board, promising benefits to the economy and the environment while being a good neighbor. However, these claims were dubious at best, coupled with the secretive way in which Humble acquired the Moss Landing site, suggested that the oil officials’ words were more of a public relations ploy than reality.
“I’m on this commission to protect the interests of industry, and its contributions to the economy of the county — and to heck with beauty.”
Santa Cruz County Planning Commissioner Bruce Woolpert
While doubts were rising in the minds of Monterey Peninsula residents, and to a lesser extent in the rest of Monterey County, it was neighboring Santa Cruz County where the first opposition would gain public notice. Around March 10, the Santa Cruz County Planning Commission took the unusual step of sending a letter to the Monterey County Planning Commission expressing its “interest and concern” about pollution from the Humble refinery. The bitterness that would arise over the next few months in the Monterey Bay area played out in that contentious planning commission meeting. Commissioners had concerns about air pollution, oil spills and polluted beaches. On the other side were those who felt the future needed new business to continue the expansion of the post-war economy.
Although the vote was unanimous, the words of Santa Cruz County Planning Commissioner Bruce Woolpert represented the thoughts of many who felt this was the best use of land: “That area has a natural deep-water port. It was meant for heavy industry.”
Commissioner Erle Byer warned of tankers blowing out their bunkers and dumping thousands of barrels of oil into the bay. Fellow Commissioner Elaine Reinelt warned of broken pipelines.
“Nonsense,” Woolpert stated, dismissing those fears without hesitation, “pipelines don’t break.”
“I’m on this commission to protect the interests of industry,” Woolpert emphasized, “and its contributions to the economy of the county — and to heck with beauty.”
Humble would be the third industrial giant in Moss Landing, along with PG&E and Kaiser Refractories. The long-planned Moss Landing industrial center was starting to take shape. With Humble, the gates to development might finally be pried open permanently. In an editorial the day after Humble’s announcement, the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian noted:
“What Humble thinks it may do at Moss Landing — and it’s going to spend a cool million dollars just to study the site it’s bought — is going to have some effect on the development of the harbor area, long designated as a proper site here for heavy industry. Industry begets industry; and if there ensues a Moss Landing triumvirate of PG&E, Kaiser and Humble, others will certainly follow.”
The battle lines were drawn. Strong support was developing in Salinas. Although primarily an agricultural town, Salinas (also the largest city in Monterey County, and the county seat) was seeking to diversify and attract other industry. There had been many near misses: Hershey, Wrigley and Columbia Broadcasting Records all had considered Salinas-area locations, but did not follow through. The University of California set up its campus in Santa Cruz instead of Monterey County. There was one marked success — Salinas did secure a Firestone tire plant. Humble, as the Salinas Californian described it, was “a highly desirable type of industry.”
Opposition from the Monterey Peninsula, primarily the Carmel, Pebble Beach and Carmel Valley areas was forming, but had yet to become the focal point of opposition. While many in the Salinas Valley were concerned about air pollution’s effects on the crops, the concern represented a minority. As on the Peninsula, public opinion was still forming.
After the Salinas Chamber of Commerce announced its support, the atmosphere began to change. Stepping forward to express concerns with the way the matter was progressing was Jim Bardin of the Cattlemen’s Association, who was also on the board of the Monterey County Air Pollution Advisory Committee that was beginning to peer into the Humble application. Bardin was one of the first in the agricultural community to warn that everyone needed to take a closer look at the Humble project.
“It upsets me that the (Salinas) Chamber of Commerce has already endorsed Humble when it knows even less than we do,” declared Bardin.
“The oil companies say they can build a refinery that doesn’t pollute the air, but that doesn’t relate to odor when you live next door."
John Maga, head of the air pollution division of the State Health Department
Bardin also criticized the chamber as disrespectful for making its decision prior to a public report on a county fact-finding trip to Los Angeles, where oil refineries were inspected. The committee that traveled to Los Angeles earlier that week included Monterey County Planning Director Ed DeMars, Sanitation Director Ed Munson, four planning commissioners including Peter Caliotto, who would play a major role a few months later, and Supervisor Warren Church.
That report was helpful only in the sense that Monterey County officials discovered that they knew little about oil refineries or the laws to regulate them. DeMars said the trip was “very enlightening, if a bit confusing.” He noted the need for expert advice. With the report in hand, the Air Pollution Advisory Committee Bardin sat on eventually recommended approval of the refinery, but also urged the adoption of Los Angeles County air pollution regulations.
Carmel resident Earl Moser, who would emerge as a prominent voice in opposition to Humble’s plans, drew out in questioning at a public meeting that Monterey County’s laws on air pollution did not address hydrocarbons. The problem was that Monterey County’s air pollution laws were designed only for smoke and dust, not heavy industry.
John Maga, head of the air pollution division of the State Health Department, noted the gaping holes in the county’s pollution laws. Maga and Munson called for a continuous inspection of air pollution. Maga also addressed the problem of odor, stating that it was harder to regulate.
“The oil companies say they can build a refinery that doesn’t pollute the air,” Maga said, “but that doesn’t relate to odor when you live next door. They feel they aren’t polluting the air if they meet requirements.”
This did not sound like the “sweet-smelling” refinery that Warner originally promised, although Maga did admit that a Richfield refinery in Los Angeles was remarkably free of odor problems when he visited it.
Humble knew of the weak local ordinances that now worried county officials. The company’s numerous comments about meeting local requirements appeared clearly aimed at Monterey County’s lax or non-existent regulations as compared to those in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“We assure you that our proposed refinery at Moss Landing … will meet your local codes,” Humble put forth in a statement read by Winslow prior to the recommendation to adopt Los Angeles County air pollution regulations.
Gardner and Winslow were both at the Air Pollution Advisory Committee’s meeting when the recommendations came down to approve the refinery but to adopt Los Angeles air pollution controls.
This would be the first blip in Humble’s plans. Undoubtedly, Humble saw Monterey County as a place with hardly any air pollution controls and little opposition. Now, Monterey County was thinking of adopting one of the nation’s tougher pollution laws. Adopting these regulations was going to make Moss Landing less profitable, supertankers or not. Humble’s goal of getting its proposal to the Board of Supervisors by April 5 for final approval was obviously not going to happen. The Planning Commission at the end of March was not even prepared to make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. However, it was prepared to receive the report from the subcommittee headed by Caliotto that traveled to Los Angeles.
One hundred people piled into the Planning Commission meeting on March 30. Humble attended in full force, with Warner and Winslow present. Also present was Humble’s attorney in Salinas, Paul Hamerly of Noland and Hamerly.
The recommendation to the Planning Commission that Monterey County adopt Los Angeles air pollution control regulations must not have been a huge surprise to Humble. The Air Pollution Advisory Committee had already made that recommendation. Next, Caliotto presented the findings which stipulated that Humble be approved “in principle” for a tentative one-year approval, but that Humble provide complete plans before pollution standards were set.
“Humble representatives have not yet defined the specific raw materials to be processed, the exact processing sequence that will be used, nor the complete slate of finished products that will be manufactured. This makes it difficult, if not impossible for the Planning Commission to initiate what they consider adequate controls to insure proper standards for air and water pollution,” Caliotto said.
The claim that detailed regulations could not be determined without more information did not deter the subcommittee from proposing 18 conditions of its own. Besides adoption of the Los Angeles regulations, the subcommittee proposed limiting operations to three coking methods. Petroleum or pet coke is a high-carbon solid created from the oil refining process. The subcommittee’s other proposals included hiring permanent county employees to monitor the plant, charging Humble for inspections, requiring compliance with standards of the Central Coast Regional Water Pollution Board, insuring against spills and leaks, guaranteeing immediate cleanup of marine spills and zoning distances between Humble’s property and residential and commercial use.
The Humble men were stunned.
“It seemed extensive and too restrictive outside the field of air pollution,” Winslow said as he left the meeting. “We don’t understand it.”
“(Humble has) no real opposition to the granting of this permit — except for the Monterey Peninsula, whose citizens seem to oppose anything that they can’t control.” The Salinas Californian
Humble came to Monterey County partially because the local regulations were undeveloped, but Humble also claimed those same same regulations were more stringent than they actually were.
Hamerly said the current regulations were more than enough to deal with air pollution concerns. He also warned that if the regulations were unreasonable, “Humble will take the refinery someplace else.” That was a threat Humble would subtly infer several times in the months to come. At other times rumors would swirl that Humble was pulling out. Just as the rumors started to sound serious, Humble would crush them with a denial.
What really had Winslow shaking his head were not the non-air pollution conditions, but that Humble had to submit complete plans before conditions were to be set. It was going to cost $1 million and take a year to conduct engineering and other tests. Only then would Humble have its finalized plans. Humble was not going to sink this kind of money into its project without guarantees from the county on what to expect. Humble emphasized that it would comply with “any reasonable standards” for air and water pollution. It was a statement that its officials would repeat for months. “Reasonable” appears to have meant “few restrictions” to Humble.
The Planning Commission meeting also fired up old tensions in the county that had never subsided. Monterey County has long felt a divide between the Monterey Peninsula and Salinas that some have called “the lettuce curtain.” People in one area tended to do business and socialize there, with a minimum of contact with the other area. Political and social organizations would have separate chapters in each place. Stemming from the early days of the county, this only grew worse over time, as the affluent Monterey Peninsula had an entirely different culture than working-class Salinas. The Humble controversy brought these old conflicts into sharper focus.
At the Planning Commission meeting, the Salinas Californian reported that the opposition came from the Monterey Peninsula, while Salinas was overwhelmingly in favor of Humble. In an editorial, the Californian summed up the resentment in Salinas:
“(Humble has) no real opposition to the granting of this permit — except for the Monterey Peninsula, whose citizens seem to oppose anything that they can’t control.”
That opposition was in the heart of Supervisor Hudson’s district. In a Californian article, several Peninsula residents made their disdain for Humble perfectly clear. Gus Bauman of the Carmel Highlands Association declared that Humble would destroy Monterey County’s greatest asset — unpolluted air and water. Throughout the Humble debate, residents and experts alike would claim Monterey County as one of the cleanest areas in the state in terms of air pollution.
It was clear that Hudson’s constituents did not want Humble to build. That allowed Hudson to stake his opposition whenever he felt comfortable. As a conservationist, opposing Humble was an easy position to assume. As a politician, it was a political necessity.
“I have never seen a refinery as beautiful as a cypress tree" C.W. Fisher of the Carmel Citizens Committee.
Carmel City Councilman Gunnar Norberg said he preferred “more Carmels” and fewer refineries for Monterey County.
“I have never seen a refinery as beautiful as a cypress tree,” stated C.W. Fisher of the Carmel Citizens Committee.
William Howard Church, president of the Del Monte Properties Homeowners Association at Pebble Beach and an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, declared that “an excellent way to contaminate the air” was to allow refineries.
One point needs clarification, and it must have confused a few people during 1965. Throughout the Humble controversy, the surname Church appeared from four different and unrelated sources. Besides Supervisor Warren Church, Humble had a senior engineer named Frank Church. There is also William Howard Church, the professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and president of the homeowners association in Pebble Beach, who would play a prominent role throughout the controversy. In addition, one of the Salinas Valley’s largest growers, Bruce Church Inc., would have representatives take a major role later in the year. There is no familial connection between any of these four Church families, and pure chance that a relatively uncommon surname appeared as significantly as it did.
As spring dawned in 1965, it became increasingly clear that a decision on Humble’s proposal was not going to happen anytime soon. The Planning Commission set its May 11 meeting as a time for a decision. It hoped that another month would clarify the many questions that it had.
Humble, on the other hand, must have been wondering why its proposal was generating so much controversy when Kaiser and PG&E had experienced so little opposition for their construction and proposed expansion.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.