Bakktimism and Abandonment in the Bakken

I returned yesterday from a quick trip to the Bakken. While the 10+ hours in various trucks (including 2 hours of driving very slowly around Minot in “reduced power” mode), we had the chance to discuss how diesel jells at -25 degrees and the difference between #1 Diesel and pre-mixed. We also talked about various book and article projects, abandonment, and the persistent optimism of people in the Bakken. And the cold. Photographs cannot capture the cold.

So cold.


Here are a few more observations.

1. Abandonment. Over the last few trips to the Bakken in 2015, we’ve seen the gradual abandonment of many temporary work force housing sites. In some cases, we were able to explain the open lots and the lower occupancy rates as the intersection of complex phenomenon such as the spread of pipelines (and the reduced need for truck drivers), the increased inventory of apartments, changing season needs for workers, the completion of major infrastructure projects, and, of course, the declining [drill] rig count.

On this trip, however, the decline in temporary workforce housing represents the declining fortunes of the Bakken. With a barrel of oil costing <$30 as compared to the over $100 at the peak of the Bakken boom, companies have simply stopped drilling for oil, and since drilling requires a significant quantity of short term labor, there are fewer people in the Bakken.

Our informal counts at “Type 2” RV parks throughout the region showed a steep decline in occupancy (with maybe 70% fewer RVs in parks since 2014) and spreading signs of abandonment. Back lots of RV parks are cluttered with abandoned RVs. Snow covered vehicles dot RV parks alongside piles of household goods, objects associated with life in an RV (insulation piles, mudrooms, et c.) and neglected units. The abundance of objects – from cars to clothes – in the modern world has produced a halo of discarded things around even the best maintained RV parks. The quantity, rate, and economic reality of abandoned objects has outstripped even our contemporary ability to dispose of trash out of sight (and site) and mind. Unlike pre-modern abandonment practices in which all but the most broken household goods remained worth salvaging, a visitor to the Bakken would get the impression that no thing, no matter how valuable, was necessarily worth keeping.

2. Squatting. With so many vacant rooms around the Bakken and the declining economic fortunes of the region, it is hardly surprising to detect signs of squatting. A visit to one workforce housing site, we noticed a door to a unit was open and the power and heat were on, but there was no vehicle present or footprints in the four-day old snow. A quick scan through the open door demonstrated that the unit was likely occupied by a squatter who probably abandoned the units sometime around Christmas. The unit remained littered with clothing, unwashed dishes, toiletries, and even some wadded up cash. There was no sign of meth production or use. The unlocked and slightly ajar door, however, hints that the occupant may not have had a key to the unit and that considerable quantity of personal items left behind suggests that he (or they) did not have time to vacate the unit in an orderly fashion.

With several large “Type 1” work force housing facilities now sitting vacant, it is seems likely that some squatting will occur across the region. Years ago, when observing a squatter camp, we observed that official recognition of a temporary housing site facilitated the remove of trash from the area which made it easier for residents to keep their space tidy and neat. Squatting camps, in contrast, may leave more of a mark in the archaeological landscape because discard remains on site. Moreover, as formal camps transition from settlements with well-managed discard practices to sites of more ad hoc occupation, we might expect to see more material associated with the final phase of use. 

3. Overbuilding. We visited one the new subdivisions of Watford City during our visit to get a sense for what the new housing in the region looked like. We were struck by how similar some of the apartment complexes looked to workforce housing sites. 

The apartments below look like they could have been moved into the area on flatbed trucks, although they clearly were built on site. 


4. Bakktimism. We manage to collect a few more interviews during our relatively short visit, and it was remarkable how optimistic people were about the region. The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex. While the “boom” has slowed, people assured us that good jobs continue to exist. Many of the folks still in the Bakken – who we met, at least – have these jobs and lower rents have helped to mitigate lower earnings. 

Perhaps people also think that the price of oil could rebound as quickly as it dropped (whether this is really the case or not, is irrelevant). The prosperity of the region remains dependent on outside sources, and this perhaps fueled a kind of fatalism that has leads to two attitudes: optimism or pessimism. The pessimists have left.

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