Dynamic Settlement in the Bakken Oil Patch

I’ve spent the last couple of days revisiting some of the North Dakota Man Camp Project study sites in the Bakken Oil Patch, and like every trip into the wild west, I’ve learned more about how North Dakota communities are adapting to the Bakken Boom, and how the men and women who work in the industries related to and impacted by the oil boom are carving out a life for themselves in North Dakota.

So, as we wait for Bret Weber to finish his summer semester grades, I’ll offer a few quick observations on the changing nature of the settlement in the Bakken.

1. Settlement is changing. We’ve noticed that the number of Type 2 camps (which are RV parks with electricity and water/sewage) have disappeared. One of the most interesting sites in our research was the town of Wheelock in which a Type 2 man camp had developed in and among the few remaining houses. Over the past 18 months, the number of units in the town center declined and a small settlement of largely Hispanic workers from Utah had grown up on the outskirts of town. This summer, both the camp in the center of town and on the outskirts had been abandoned. A similar trend seems to have taken place in the town of White Earth where two of the RV parks remain full, but another, situated around the old school in town, seems to have lost about two-thirds of its residents. When I asked an avuncular tweaker in one of the remaining camps why so few units were around the school, he looks hazily at the sky and said: “winter is coming…” As new, better housing becomes available, members of the workforce formerly satisfied with living in an RV can now do better.

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2. Settlements are changing. One of our favorite camps is a Type 2 camp just outside of Williston called Fox Run. This came had over 300 units in it last summer and showed a tremendous amount of architectural innovation with elaborate mudrooms, well-kept spaces around the units, built decks and platforms, and residents describing a genuine sense of community. In our visit this summer, the material conditions in the camp had clearly changed. There were fewer elaborate mudrooms (and more mudrooms in reuse), the areas around units were less well-kept, and the sense of community had palpably changed. There were far more open lots than we had seen before. It seems like the character of the facility had changed and, while I use this word guardedly, the camp seems to be in decline. We’re contemplating writing a history of Williston Fox Run and have begun to look into county and state records for the parcel. The Type 2 camps are attracting a different kind of resident as more permanent (or semi-permanent) housing is made available for workers looking to reside in the Bakken for more than a single season.

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3. Settlements and Capital. In our “almost ready for publication” article we noted that man camps represented a way that industry managed the need for a contingent workforce who could move at the close to the same speed as global capital. A meeting with the development office in Watford City complicated our picture a bit by pointing out that man camps themselves are also a product of the global (or at least national) flow of capital. Camps like Williston Fox Run were built by developers and maintained by companies with investors who live far outside the region. In other words, the development extractive industries in the Bakken and the housing requirements for workforce all derive from the same pool of non-local capital and predictably respond to the needs and expectation of investors, managers, and pressures that have only practical concerns for local communities. This is unsurprising, but we had not explored this aspect of the Bakken boom in past field and research seasons.

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