1965: The future that might have been

Through September 2, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary will host Big Blue Live – an unprecedented series of live natural history broadcasts from PBS and the BBC. Big Blue Live highlights the remarkable marine life that gathers in Monterey Bay each summer, and celebrates an ocean conservation success story of global significance. We’re publishing guest commentaries about conservation efforts that contribute to the health of the bay and our ocean planet. Ken Peterson, the Aquarium’s communications director, describes an epic environmental battle that took place 50 years ago and dramatically shaped the future of the Monterey Bay region.

Ken Peterson
Ken Peterson

It’s easy to take the environmental health of Monterey County for granted. It’s all around us, from Point Lobos State Reserve and the Pacific Grove shoreline, to the whales, sea otters and seabirds in the bay.

The region is defined by Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Aquarium, nearly two dozen respected marine research institutions, healthy commercial fisheries and a $5 billion agricultural industry that includes a growing organic sector.

Big Blue Live holds up Monterey Bay as a global ocean conservation success story.

Valero refinery in Benicia, once proposed for Moro Cojo Slough in Moss Landing
Valero refinery in Benicia, a project once proposed for Moro Cojo Slough in Moss Landing.

Fifty years ago, we almost lost it – all of it. It’s a might-have-been scenario that’s hard to fathom from the perspective of 2015. And it’s a reminder that – time and again – local residents have banded together and fought to preserve one of Earth’s great environmental treasures.

In 1965, in the most divisive and electrifying battle to face Monterey County in modern times, we came within a whisker of becoming home to a 50,000-barrel-a-day oil refinery, to be built on the wetlands of Moro Cojo Slough in Moss Landing next to a power plant and a factory that produced bricks for industrial blast furnaces.

An ’emerging industrial corridor’

The $50 million Humble Oil refinery was seen as a linchpin for an “emerging Moss Landing-Salinas industrial corridor” that would occupy 3,800 acres of Salinas Valley farmland – stretching south to the recently opened Firestone tire plant in Salinas. PG&E waited in the wings with plans to build a nuclear power plant in Moss Landing.

The battle over Humble Oil split the county over the issue of environmental protection versus economic development. The Salinas Valley wanted to add to the county’s tax base and diversify the economy. Monterey Peninsula residents lobbied fiercely to keep the air clean and the bay free of oil tankers.

The proposed 50,000-barrel-a-day refinery would have been fueled by fleets of tankers in Monterey Bay.
The 50,000-barrel-a-day refinery would have been fueled by fleets of tankers in Monterey Bay.

Newspapers editorialized passionately on opposite sides of the issue. More than 23,000 county residents – nearly 10 percent of the population – wrote letters and signed petitions, for and against the project.

It was such a different world, 1965: Five years before the first Earth Day, with the environmental movement in its infancy. There was no California Coastal Commission, no federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts, no regional air pollution control district – and no environmental impact reports.

Sea otters had barely returned to Monterey Bay, and commercial whaling was still legal. The idea of a marine sanctuary was decades in the future; Elkhorn Slough had no protected status.

The county’s economy was different, too. Cannery Row was lined with derelict fish-packing plants, not hotels and a world-class aquarium. Neither agriculture nor tourism were the multi-billion dollar economic engines they are today.

Adding a $50 million project to the tax rolls was very tempting – especially when you consider that tax revenue from PG&E’s Moss Landing power plant covered a quarter of the costs of building a dam vital to the future of farming in the Salinas Valley.

Pitched public battle

Humble Oil, a subsidiary of Standard Oil, announced its plans for the refinery just after Valentine’s Day and began an intensive lobbying campaign for support. In late July, the Monterey County Planning Commission turned the project down on a 5-4 vote. (The commissioner who cast the deciding “no” vote had eight customers cancel their accounts at his Salinas hardware store.)

On September 3 – the Friday before Labor Day – the Board of Supervisors reversed the Commission and backed the project on a 3-2 vote following a marathon 13 ½-hour public hearing that ended at 3 a.m.

A humpback whale breaches off Moss Landing, with power plant in background. Photo ©Shane Keena
A humpback whale breaches off Moss Landing, with power plant in background. Photo ©Shane Keena

Opponents refused to surrender. A referendum petition to overturn the decision attracted 15,000 signatures in a matter of weeks. A citizens committee prepared to take the fight to Standard Oil shareholders.

Ultimately, Humble Oil backed away. It opted in May 1966 to develop a 100,000-barrel-a-day refinery in Benicia, on San Francisco Bay, where the city embraced the project with open arms. (The refinery, now owned by Valero, has been fined repeatedly for violating state and federal air quality laws. It’s also considered a good community citizen, and an anchor of Benicia’s economic revival.)

The company maintained that public opposition had nothing to do with the decision.

But was a defining moment for the future of the Monterey Bay region, one that renowned photographer and Carmel resident Ansel Adams alluded to in a speech in opposition to the project.

Sandhill crane in Moro Cojo Slough. Photo © Blake Matheson
Sandhill crane in Moro Cojo Slough. Photo © Blake Matheson

“It is not just the Humble Oil refinery we’re fighting at Moss Landing,” he said. “It is the whole industrial complex which will inevitably follow and change the whole complexion of (the region).”

The Monterey Peninsula Herald – which fought tirelessly against the refinery had this to say:

“The battle is won….We rejoice….We have protected a clean air-shed, and we can keep it for our grandchildren; we can have a positively clean shoreline, and clean streams, and we can keep them for our great-grandchildren. That’s what men are for: to look to the future and to preserve the country.”

Today, Moro Cojo is a state marine reserve, the “emerging industrial corridor” has faded from memory – and Big Blue Live is the face of Monterey Bay.

Learn what the Aquarium is doing to assure a future with healthy oceans.

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