Inside North Dakota’s largest man camp

TIOGA, N.D. — The North Dakota winter is relentless. Air temperatures hover around zero degrees Fahrenheit. Yet that’s easy to forget here, inside a network of steel mobile homes opened in 2011 in the state’s northwestern corner. Guys walk around in flip-flops, shorts and T-shirts. They eat ice cream at regularly available opportunities and then sweat it off on a treadmill.

And they are nearly all guys. This is Tioga Lodge, the sprawling barracks that are home to men at the heart of the North American oil fracking boom. The compounds are known as “crew-camps”, or more often, as “man-camps.”

The drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has alleviated much of Americans’ concern about foreign-energy dependence in a short time. It has also transformed North Dakota from the potential wind-energy haven of environmentalists’ dreams to an actual oil-producer with greater output than OPEC-member Ecuador. Fracking shale rock formations for natural gas has transformed local economies in Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado and elsewhere, even as concerns about its environmental impacts remain unresolved.

In North Dakota, shale oil production is expanding U.S. oil and natural gas supplies and shifting the balance of power in global energy markets. U.S. oil exports are way up and crude imports are lower than they have been in almost 16 years. The sudden influx of workers into North Dakota, population 699,628, has lowered the state’s unemployment rate to 3.2 percent, the nation’s lowest, and created a housing crisis unlike the one we’re used to hearing about: there just aren’t enough homes to go around.

Tioga Lodge, North Dakota’s largest man-camp, is about 6 miles from the town of Tioga, where the Bakken oil shale boom first took off. The housing is run by Target Logistics, a company that provides housing for oilfield and construction workers. With the adjacent RV park, the camp can house 1,238 people.

Inhabitants can’t drink alcohol, smoke on the premises, host guests or keep pets. Most people get very basic, white-walled rooms that each have a TV with DVD player, microwave, mini fridge and a window view — usually on another mobile unit. Bathrooms are shared. Very few stay with other members of their families.

“Occasionally we would get a husband and wife, or sometimes a father and son,” Lynn Holden, general manager of the Tioga Lodge, said in an interview. “Doesn’t happen that often.”

The workday starts as early as 4 a.m., with scrambled eggs and a bus ride to an oil field or construction site. Around 7 p.m., the local dining room gets crowded. Men line up for pork roast, fried chicken, spicy shrimp and steak, followed by salad and a chocolate, lemon pie or flan, a custard dessert.

“A lot of them complain not about the food, but the fact that they eat too much,” Holden said.

“I look at man-camps as being somewhat a necessary evil,” said E. Ward Koeser, the president of the city commission.

Target Logistics organizes steak or smoked-meats nights that cater to the Cajun tastes of Louisiana and Georgia workers. Besides the traditional, home-dining style eatery, the complex also has a fast-food joint, with three kinds of hot-dogs, pizza and burgers.

“It’s really trial-and-error, so that we get to know what customers eat,” said Jeff Ball, executive chef at the premises. “They don’t like anything that they can’t identify.” He cited example of Sauerbraten, the German roast beef that he took off the menu because of low interest.

All rooms are cleaned twice a week, and linens are refreshed every 7 days. The white walls and long and straight corridors make the place looks a bit like a hospital, except that it’s populated with people much livelier, and more muscular, than clinic convalescents.

Target Logistics uses a model designed for oilfield workers in Arctic Circle, where BP Plc and ConocoPhillips drill in Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska’s North Slope. All the units are connected, keeping workers warm and in house-like conditions at all times once they enter the premises. Not all the camps in the neighborhood are as hospitable, according to Holden. Williston, a town of 16,000 on the Bakken formation, estimates there are 6,000 additional people living in and around the town in temporary conditions.

“I look at man-camps as being somewhat a necessary evil,” said E. Ward Koeser, the president of the city commission.

The influx of well-paid oil workers, who fill up and bid out all the living space, is pushing services into a breaking point: Williston State College has 24 mobile homes on its campus, including Federal Emergency Management Agency shelters, to house more than 10 percent of its staff. Some Williston schools use mobile classrooms and nearby Mackenzie County bought some for its employees.

As man-camps don’t allow families with children, they aren’t for everyone.

Halliburton Co. deployed a mobile complex that was previously used at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. The company also built 50 single-family homes in Williston and is working on completing 44 townhomes and two apartment buildings with 48 units combined, according to Susie McMichael, a spokeswoman for the company.

On the other end of the spectrum, the highest-paid employees can kick back in the boutique hotel, The Williston, which opened last year and available for $299-$349 per night in a more than 100-year old downtown mansion.

Besides man-camps, oilfield and construction workers often stay in lower-rent inns and motels for a while, and then move into their own pads.
A drive on busy U.S. Route 2 that connects Williston to Tioga provides a rare insight into how creative, and how determined black gold miners are– modern, spacious man-camps neighbor wildly planted RVs, trailers sinking in deep snow, motels and construction sites.

As man-camps don’t allow families with children, they aren’t for everyone. Jason Smith, 40, moved from Willits, California, with his wife, two daughters and a dog. His family stayed in a single room at the Missouri Flats Inn for about a month before he got a mobile home on the outskirts of the city, opposite a drilling rig. The U.S. Postal Service doesn’t deliver the mail to where Smith lives, but the family made the interior of the 1,400 square feet unit into a home. It’s quiet, clean and colorful, and stays warm even on days when temperatures outside dip 20 degrees below zero.

Smith said he likes it more than northern California and will probably stay in the temporary housing for another two or three years, until the real estate prices go down.

“We’ve got some open space around, so our dog can run around,” Smith said. “Our kids can get outside and play.”