Man Camps, Domesticity, and the Bakken

Over the past week, Capital Lodge near Tioga announced it was closing permanently. It was one of the biggest camps in the Bakken and at its peak could accommodate over 2000 workers and had infrastructure capacity – including its own sewage treatment facility – for 3000. News reports indicate that it cost close to $30 million to set up. 

The owners of the Capital Lodge suffered from the decline in oil prices and activity in the Bakken and when the camp closed it had only around 100 residents. We visited Capital Lodge in August and guess that many of those were employees of the lodge. The decision to close the facility came at the end of some rather lengthy negotiations to try to rezone the camp either as an extended stay hotel or to move at least part of the camp to another site in the region. The reluctance by the community to allow the camp to be rezoned (and the economically unfriendly conditions attached to the setting the camp up elsewhere in the region) represented as much “market forces” as the local media spun it as decisions made by the local communities.

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The decisions made by communities in the patch with regard to temporary workforce housing have received national attention. The city of Williston, for example, has established a moratorium on new camps and has a date for camps to depart from city limits. RV parks and the like are under pressure as well as they try either to renegotiate their zoning or find ways to continue to generate revenue as the boom slows to a crawl. Over the last few months, I have received calls from national and local media and financial firms from across the US asking my thoughts on the man camp situation in the Bakken. 

This has led to me to think about how the communities in the Bakken are asserting their autonomy during this lull (let’s say) in the boom. First, many observers have critiqued the role that the state of North Dakota has played in encouraging the rapid acceleration of oil related activity in the Bakken. There is no doubt that lax regulation, low taxes, and various incentives made it appealing for companies to invest in their Bakken operations and persist with them even as the price of oil has declined. The state not only accelerated the impact of the boom in the Bakken, but also prolonged the boom even as it became clear that the price of oil could not longer support the more costly extractive processes used in the Bakken. 

Under these circumstances, local communities often struggled to accommodate the rapidly growing workforce, the infrastructural demands of the oil industry, and the social pressures associated with the boom. Since local communities had very little control over what goes on outside their limited territorial jurisdiction, they often sought extra territorial authority from the counties or to expand the city boundaries and by-and-large were granted these rights. Even these expanded rights, however, did not impact the state policies that dictated the extent and pace of oil work in the region. City and county authority can influence the inventory of workforce housing, however, and recent decisions by both counties and city councils have demonstrated a growing reluctance to allow temporary workforce housing to expand or persist unfettered in their communities.

To be clear, I’m skeptical whether these communities’ decisions to limit temporary workforce housing is the right one. Since most work in the oil field is temporary, expecting short-term oil field workers to sign leases or purchase housing in a community is unrealistic. At the same time, I do recognize the strategies used by these communities represent a kind of control over the processes associated with the oil boom. Cities and counties have virtually no control over the extractive process, but they do have control over the social impact of these processes.

Efforts to limit the extent of temporary housing is not just about making it harder for oil companies and related industries to expand the number of workers in a community. While there are tax implications associated with permanent housing – either in apartments or houses, I’d argue that this isn’t simply an economic decision on the part of these communities.

In the Bakken, man camps and workforce housing stand as a challenge to traditional notions of domesticity. Traditional domestic space accommodates family life whereas temporary workforce housing serves single individuals, typically men, who live in dormitory style rooms and dine in communal space. Traditional domestic space is stable and permanent, whereas workforce housing – whether prefabricated and mobile man camps or RV parks – are inherently mobile and temporary. The investment in permanent housing recalls the investment in the traditional family and the importance of property and fixity in both the myth of American life and in the economic and social life of local communities. Finally, traditional domesticity continues to play a key role in the dominant discourse of morality. The fixity of domestic life and the presence of the family reinforces accountability in the context of traditional morality.

Managing workforce housing, then, presents an opportunity for local communities to exert control in a situation that is largely dictated by the state and by transnational corporation. They do this by appealing to traditional domesticity and the economic, social, and moral controls inherent in these long-standing structures. 

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