Humble Brag

With the plan for an oil refinery at Moss Landing in 1965, the dream of boundless economic progress collided with the advent of the environmental movement. In a new self-published book, Glenn Church and Kathryn McKenzie write about a forgotten but epic struggle over Monterey County’s future. The oil company at the center of the story eventually scrapped its plans and built a refinery in Benicia instead.

A humpback whale breaches to the delight of tourists on a nearby boat. Closer to shore, a sea otter floats above the kelp forest. In the water below, a submarine explores the depths.

A typical day on the Monterey Bay, it is easy to take for granted. But if Humble Oil (now called ExxonMobil) had gotten its way in 1965, there’d be a massive oil refinery at Moss Landing. The story of the refinery plan and how it was defeated has been largely forgotten – until now with the release of a new bookHumbled: How California’s Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin.

It was written by a couple living near Elkhorn Slough. Kathryn McKenzie is a local journalist. Her husband, Glenn Church, is the son of the late Warren Church, who served on the County Board of Supervisors and played a central role in what Glenn calls “one of the first battles of America’s modern environmental movement.”

Weekly: What if the refinery and surrounding development had gone ahead as planned?

Church: The Elkhorn Slough would have been radically altered. Highway 1 was going to be moved east and raised 60 feet so oceangoing ships would be able to fit underneath to serve factories on the banks of the slough. Because of the submarine canyon that comes within a couple of hundred yards of Moss Landing, Humble Oil could bring its supertankers almost to shore. It would have transformed the look and feel of the Monterey Bay area. We came so close to losing this paradise.

McKenzie: Many things wouldn’t be here. We maybe wouldn’t have had the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Probably not the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

When we look back at this now, we say, “Oh my God, how could anybody have wanted an oil refinery in their backyard?” But it was a different time without all the environmental awareness we have now. And there was a lot more trust in what business and government said was good for you.

Glenn, how did having a father at the center of the story lead to you writing a book about it?

GC: He and I had discussions about what happened, but even more so it was his notes, about five inches thick of folders. He wrote down his thought processes and that was an extraordinary resource. We realized there’s a story about environmental activism that needed to be put down for posterity.

Your dad voted in favor of the refinery. Did you ask him why?

GC: People in his district were in favor of it, even though they were concerned about pollution. If you’re a politician, you got 70 or 80 percent of the people in your district favoring something, you only have one choice. The only area in Monterey County where most people were opposed was Pebble Beach, Monterey and Carmel Valley.

Then what happened? The bulk of your book is about how this thing was ultimately defeated.

GC: The important thing to realize is this was not a “what if.” No, this was a “what was” – they got their permit to build the refinery.

But then more people started to speak out against it and form an opposition. Ironically, they included former industrialists, one of them was a former Chevron executive. These people had been putting up factories around the country. And now it was happening here and they were like, “Oh, boy, it’s not a great idea.” Like the first NIMBYs.

What was it like to write together?

KM: We took different subjects and wrote about them and we would edit each other’s work. And then we would argue for a while. It’s always very interesting working on a big project with your spouse. I don’t think it’s for everybody. And believe me, we had some moments. But it actually was really fun and… we’re not divorced.

What is your ultimate takeaway?

KM: It makes you realize how important it is to keep fighting and not get complacent because things can definitely turn around.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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