The North Dakota Man Camp Project: An Executive Summary for Industry

Next week, we’ve been invited to present some of our research to a delegation of Norwegian corporate types associated with the energy industry. Statoil will be particularly well represented and we’ve been working to attract their attention to our work (and hopefully get them interested in funding us). As you can imagine, when big companies come to a university campus there are a “lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous”. Most of these are above my pay grade and attention span.

Despite this, we’re being good sports and have put together an executive summary of our work for industry and my wife has helped us develop a slick marketing packet for these executives so they will know how important our work is and how remarkable our impact has been.

Bret Weber did most of the leg work on the executive summary, but we had some interesting conversations on how we should sell our project. I was much more inclined toward selling our methods than our expertise. After all, expertise could be harvested from research publications, but methods and personnel are typically tied to the project. To my mind, investing in a research team and methods could yield longer term value. Bret’s take on this won out in our executive summary. 

North Dakota Man Camp Project: An Executive Summary 

The Importance of Housing

After technology and markets, labor is the most important factor in profitable and sustainable energy production. Housing is foremost among the factors affecting recruitment and retention of labor. The NDMCP utilizes a combination of archaeological and ethnographic methods to gather data for industry, communities, and policy makers. Consistent with a zero harm philosophical approach, the project provides information to help resolve uncertainties connected to housing labor and the related impacts on the environment, infrastructure, and community well-being.

Temporary worker housing needs are determined by the rapidly changing ebbs and flows of oil and gas exploration and extraction, along with the varying rhythms of indirect sectors such as trucking, construction, and related service needs. All of these separate but interdependent activities are essential to production, but the specific needs and patterns of each complicate development decisions necessary to providing temporary, intermediary, and long-term housing. While limited sectors have become relatively precise in calculating and providing on-demand housing, too often industry, policy makers, and developers have insufficient information, which results in poor planning and resistance to the types of infrastructure development essential to efficient profitability, and to attracting and retaining a quality workforce. In conjunction with costly infrastructure miscalculations from previous booms there is an unfortunate and unnecessary animosity between long-term residents, the industries that are enriching those communities, and the newly arrived workers necessary to North Dakota’s oil and gas industry in the present and the future.

To date, the boom has created in excess of 65,000 new jobs in western North Dakota. In contrast, existing and planned temporary housing has only produced approximately 20,000 beds. And yet, information necessary for sound housing decisions has too often depended on either sensational media reports or poorly coordinated bureaucratic records.

The Unique Approach of the North Dakota Man Camp Project

The NDMCP offers a more proficient and comprehensive approach to looking at all of this by bringing together archaeologists, architectural historians, social work researchers, and artists to document the social, material, and environmental conditions of workforce housing in the Bakken. The North Dakota Man Camp project offers a rich, up to date set of perspectives on the long-term costs, benefits, and impacts of various forms of labor housing.

The Three Main Types of Temporary Worker Housing

In patterns similar to those documented since the earliest oil booms in Pennsylvania and Texas, the NDMCP has identified three types of temporary labor housing in western North Dakota.

Type I housing—sometimes referred to as ‘crew camps’—consists of uniform, institutional housing that makes the most efficient use of resources and has the smallest and least permanent environmental footprint in relation to the number of beds provided. Additionally, by consolidating worker shifts and addressing needs in a collective manner, Type I housing minimizes the impact on transportation, water, and sewage infrastructure. However, with little personalization or individual freedoms and only a limited sense of community, Type I housing is not always the most attractive to workers, especially those engaged in indirect sectors (trucking, construction, and service).

Type II camps—akin to RV parks—are often individually owned, temporary units that most closely replicate the sense of community found in working-class suburbs. However, they make greater demands on existing infrastructure and with less tightly controlled administration they have a greater environmental impact. Additionally, units that are only meant for temporary living have increasingly become near permanent housing structures operating independent of building and safety codes.

Type III camps can be best described as ‘living rough’ with no fixed electrical, water, or sewage infrastructure. This is the least desirable form of housing both for workers and host communities and offers the lowest quality of material existence, especially in relation to harsh weather conditions. Additionally, Type III housing is the least controllable from a community perspective, creates the highest potential for health concerns, and has the greatest per-capita environmental impact.

Providing Value to Industry, Policy Makers, and Communities

The NDMCP is providing a substantial and updated data set that links the material situation with the social environment in all the different types of Bakken workforce housing. The nuanced connection between the social and material offers both evidence of continuity with past booms and perspectives for future optimization of labor housing solutions in the Bakken and elsewhere. This work provides valuable information for industry, policy makers, and local communities.

The Pictures on the Following Page

The top left corner is a scene from a typical Type I, crew camp. Note the efficient use of space and low environmental footprint, but also the relative sterility and lack of community. Next to it is an aerial photo a Type II camp. The NDMCP utilizes a variety of recording techniques to offer a particularly rich data set.

The winter scene below is of a ‘dry’ Type II with no water or sewage hook-ups.

Many of the units are not designed for permanent habitation or the harsh winter climate (note the make-shift insulation around the base of many of the units), creating potential health and safety hazards.

The next two pictures illustrate the sprawling nature of much of the temporary labor housing in the Bakken. The picture on the right was taken in a city that had been decommissioned in the 1980s, and then became an ad hoc collection of trailers and campers. The poorly constructed sewage system serving multiple trailers created a stench that was noticeable throughout the town.

The bottom picture is of a Type III camp with no infrastructure, meaning people ‘live rough.’


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