Lots of Employment in North Dakota: High Paying Oil JobsNovember 26, 2011 3 Comments
Oil Rigs Bring Camps of Men to the Prairie
A. G. SULZBERGER
New York Times
November 25, 2011
TIOGA, N.D. — As much as the drilling rigs that tower over this once placid corner of the prairie, the two communities springing up just outside of town testify to the galloping pace of growth here in oil country.
They are called man camps — temporary housing compounds supporting the overwhelmingly male work force flooding the region in search of refuge from a stormy economy. These two, Capital Lodge and Tioga Lodge, built on opposite sides of a highway, will have up to 3,700 residents, according to current plans.
Confronted with the unusual problem of too many unfilled jobs and not enough empty beds to accommodate the new arrivals, North Dakota embraced the camps — typically made of low-slung, modular dormitory-style buildings — as the imperfect solution to keeping workers rested and oil flowing.
But now, even as the housing shortage worsens, towns like this one are denying new applications for the camps. In many places they have come to embody the danger of growing too big too fast, cluttering formerly idyllic vistas, straining utilities, overburdening emergency services and aggravating relatively novel problems like traffic jams, long lines and higher crime.
The grumbling has escalated despite the huge influx of wealth from the boom, largely because it has become clear that growth is overwhelming capacity. Indeed, local leaders note incredulously that a conference on regional infrastructure took place in Colorado last month because the region lacked the facilities to host its own event.
“We need a little time to catch our breath to figure out what resources we need in place before we keep expanding,” said Ward Heidbreder, city coordinator in nearby Stanley, which has two camps.
In recent weeks, Williams County, where thousands of previously approved camp beds have yet to be built, and Mountrail County, where one-third of the population is living in temporary housing, imposed moratoriums on man camp development. McKenzie County, where the growth had been particularly untamed thanks to the absence of any zoning rules, is even considering breaking with a century of tradition and requiring building permits.
Leaders in these communities say they will use the reprieve to draft new fees for the camps to support fire and ambulance services; write tighter rules, like background checks, for residents in these facilities; and require performance bonds to ensure that the modular buildings aren’t simply abandoned whenever the boom turns bust. But the timeout also simply reflects lost patience.
“There is a testiness that’s developed in this last year because it’s so intense,” said E. Ward Koeser, the longtime mayor of nearby Williston, with about 14,000 people, the largest city in the region.
Brian Lash, chief executive of Target Logistics, the largest operator of man camps, boasts that the company plans to house 1 percent of the state’s population within a year, and supports the moratoriums.
Target’s camps, which rent directly to the drilling, hydraulic fracturing and trucking companies that employ most workers, have strict prohibitions on alcohol, firearms and unauthorized women. Violators are evicted and, often as a consequence, fired by the companies. With the employers paying $100 and up per worker per night for housing, good behavior is ensured, Mr. Lash said.
Mr. Lash said that communities should require such strict rules for other operators, as well, to prevent future problems.
“There is a little bit of a backlash that has culminated in these moratoriums,” he said. “They’re trying to catch their breath and ask for a little more regulation, as they should.”
A few years ago, when the oil boom was in its infancy, these long-shrinking communities were doing anything to encourage development. Now the state population is growing, money is pouring into communities and the unemployment rate remains by far the lowest in the nation, even though more job seekers arrive every day.
Confident that a bust is not imminent — industry leaders insist that they will continue drilling for years, if not decades — community leaders who were once deferential to the industry are increasingly comfortable insisting that development slow down a bit.
“Five years ago, anything the industry wanted it got. Anything to move things forward. That’s changed,” said Robert Harms, the former president of an oil producers’ trade association who now works as a consultant. “The industry needs to recognize that they’re guests here. They’re operating in people’s front yards and backyards and they damn well better act that way.”
“But,” he added, “locals need to recognize that newcomers are also struggling.”
Those newcomers include Ryan Nordstrom, who rolled into town not long ago with a dozen empty cans of energy drink in his passenger seat and $11 in his pocket, the meager remainder of the fuel money his sister had given him when he left Michigan. He had no trouble finding work — one of his first jobs was building camps — but housing was elusive.
He had enough cash to dump all his clothes and buy a brand new wardrobe, but Mr. Nordstrom was forced to live in vagabond style, often sleeping in the back of his car. This month he landed a new job working on an oil rig that included free housing at a camp. He walked into his tiny room in a trailer for the first time with an air of celebration, saying he never imagined how hard it would be to find a place to sleep.
That concern, that people are still arriving despite the housing shortage, is shared by some local leaders, including law enforcement officials who warn that people could die if they try to live in vehicles or other makeshift facilities through the North Dakota winter. But the large paychecks, often totaling more than $100,000 a year, mean that some undoubtedly will take the risk.
Motel rooms in Williston are booked solid, sometimes for years. Rents have quadrupled, and building permits have increased sixfold. Many people are so pressed for a place to stay that they commute two or more hours each day. The lucky ones will get spots at the camps.
More reminiscent of a college dorm than a bunkhouse, most of the camps serve three meals a day, have their own security, and come with amenities like workout rooms, game rooms and laundry service. Typically residents work rotations of two weeks in the camp and then have one week at homes scattered around the country, getting a new room each time they return to the camp.
Dropping off a bag of oil-stained work clothes in his small but private room, Shawn Mallimo said the amenities at the camps vary dramatically — his last camp had four men and two beds per room, with people working and sleeping in shifts.
The camps are built to be temporary — concrete is rarely poured. “The idea is when the majority of the work force leaves, these can be picked up and moved,” said Jill Edson, a planning official for Williams County. “So the land can be reclaimed like they were never there.”
At Black Gold, one of a series of camps just outside Williston, interlocking modular units that will house 900 workers when completed are being trucked in and reassembled after serving the oil fields in Alaska. The company is experienced and its rules are less restrictive. The men who have moved in are allowed alcohol in rooms and a few live here with their wives.
The assistant manager, Ann Marie Nowaczyk, whose presence reflects some hard-earned wisdom that nobody keeps a bunch of men on good behavior like a woman, says that she rarely has to use her “mom voice” to stifle trouble. Mostly people come back exhausted, eat and go to bed, she said, then start another 12-hour shift. “I think a lot of people in town think of oil field workers as trash,” she said. “They’re just like anybody else, working their butts off.”
Law enforcement and building inspection officials say most camps have not been problematic, but there have been exceptions. One camp outside Williston was shut down for allowing sewage to flow freely over the property. Others have had fights. Unauthorized encampments are easy to spot along country roads.
Some companies have responded to the criticism. Capital Lodge, which is still under construction, has been drilling wells to provide its own water supply. Across the highway, Tioga Lodge has a waste treatment facility so the owner will not have to continue trucking sewage to surrounding communities. Both moves were warmly welcomed by local utilities.
As more projects to increase the capacity of local sewer, water, electric, roads and law enforcement are completed — already hundreds of millions have been spent — officials expect to lift the moratoriums on the camps.
But even then, Tom Rolfstad, who is in charge of economic development for Williston, said that he would like to see more permanent housing, which he believes would encourage more newcomers to bring their families. “There is a bit more testosterone right now than the town was used to,” he said.