When Business Power Helped to Regulate Pollution: Oil Refineries in Switzerland in the Early 1960s

In the late 1950s and in the 1960s, in response to the surge of gasoline and fuel oil consumption, several international oil companies planned the building of refineries in Switzerland, linked to European pipelines. Two were realized, out of four propositions, but all were the subject of public debates, inter alia over pollution and impact on health and local environment. The authorities thus faced a strong demand for regulation, but lacked knowledge concerning oil infrastructures, as well as proper policy instruments. Nevertheless, with varying effectiveness, building and operating permits set conditions to limit pollution.

Based on sources produced by local and national polities, by oil companies and by critics of the planned infrastructures, this contribution will highlight the complex interplay of concerns and forces that weighed on the regulation process. Local governments, largely sympathetic to the projects, which corresponded to their industrial and fiscal objectives, sidelined their own health administrations. However, this was partly counterbalanced by the involvement of the federal authorities, more strongly influenced by business groups that stood to lose because of the new infrastructures, as well as by considerations of energy policy and energy security. This will be illustrated through the case of one of the built refineries, where local opposition and federal-mandated expertise led to a strengthening of the conditions set in the building permit.

Hence, compared to well known cases where regulation of pollution was rendered ineffective by the pressure exerted by industrialists, their influence over expertise and science, or the proximity between political and business actors, the analysis highlights how such factors, by playing out differently at various political levels, could also bring about more nuanced results.