When temporary worker camps are no longer an option, the Williston workforce and camp companies will face big changes

Unless there’s a major turnaround in the coming months, crew camps will no longer be an option for oilfield workers in Williston, North Dakota.

The talk of eliminating crew camps in the major boom city in the Bakken shale heated up at a Williston City Commission meeting on Nov. 24, 2015. The four-member commission and Mayor/Commission President Howard Klug entertained the possibility of working out a compromise to keep some housing open for workers who aren’t permanent mainstays in Williston.

On March 8, about 200 people attended a Williston City Commission public hearing to discuss the compromise. However, after two hours of open forum, the measure was shot down 3-2.

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“We expected the mayor would stay true to his word and find compromise,” Bakken Backers Director Rob Lindberg says. “If you listen to the audio from that Nov. 24 meeting, he proposes a compromise similar to what Commissioner (Deanette) Piesik proposes at that meeting, which is essentially what she had in Ordinance 1038. We took notice that the mayor didn’t stay true to his word.”

The vote was identical to the November meeting as commissioners Piesik and Brad Bekkedahl voted in favor of a compromise and Klug and commissioners Chris Brostuen and Tate Cymbaluk voted against the measure.

Crew camps are set to be eliminated July 1 of this year. The compromise, according to the Williston Daily Herald, sought to phase out temporary worker housing and keep crew camps open until Dec. 1, 2019. It would have also reduced the number of crew camp beds by 50 percent by 2017, the newspaper noted.

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Lindberg attended the public hearing and was a voice of the Bakken Backers who helped form a coalition — 1038 Housing Compromise Alliance — that sought to keep crew camps in Williston.

“We really just worked with them to try and push that message to the commissioners,” Lindberg says. “A good portion of the companies sent in letters that have no effect, which is concerning because oil and gas is about 55 percent of Williston’s workforce.”

According to Lindberg, Cymbaluk motioned to deny the compromise and within three seconds of public comment ending the commission commenced voting.

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“It was so fast that I was watching the last speaker sit down at his chair and I hear the motion,” he says. “It was kind of one of things like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’

“I was really shocked that the two commissioners and the mayor didn’t entertain any discussion or compromise or really make any effort to appease the needs of industry.”

Lindberg believes the commissioners had a predetermined mindset entering the public hearing. It wasn’t going to matter what the people in the open forum said.

“The second was made by a commissioner over the phone and all night he had a one- or two-second delay,” Lindberg says. “He was so spot-on that there’s no way it wasn’t discussed beforehand.”

Multiple attempts to reach Mayor Klug for comment about the compromise were unsuccessful.

An ongoing issue
Lindberg says since 2010 when Williston started to get hit hard by the oil boom, crew camps have been an issue. The city was overwhelmed with the influx of people who were living in campers and cars because of a lack of housing.

“There were stories that people were living in the Wal-Mart parking lot and they were largely true, maybe a little overexaggerated,” Lindberg says. “So there was just a big need for any kind of housing and everything came online.

“What the city really failed to do though is take a long-term approach and understand there are different types of short-term housing. They’ve never really taken the time to understand the workforce housing and how that’s a temporary and rotational workforce. They didn’t take time to understand those guys are mobile and Williston is still a remote location.”

With the city not setting a long-term policy, it took its toll. Some one-year permits were granted by the city, while Williams County – where Williston is the center of the oilfields – signed off on two-year permits.

“What we really need is friendly business policy that’s long term and stable,” Lindberg says. “In this downturn, we have the ability to pause, and everybody said that. What that means isn’t knee-jerk reactions and trying to get rid of things. It means having smart policy that works over many years or even decades.”

Williams County has had a similar stance as Williston on crew camps. Despite its two-year permits, the county grew tired of having the issue come up every year or every other year for individual camps, so it set Dec. 31, 2019, as its end date for crew camps.

“That’s not allowing the free market to work perfectly, but at least it gives long-term stability and long-term expectations to everybody involved,” Lindberg says.

What’s next for crew camps?
With a compromise seemingly off the table, the July 1 deadline is looming for the elimination of crew camps.

“There are companies that are seriously looking at their options,” Lindberg says. “We don’t have plans as of right now to keep moving as kind of a public coalition. The city’s shown its hand and they won’t compromise.”

One option for companies is seeking legal action. Some are considering repurposing their current facility if it’s on a permanent structure and they can classify it as a hotel. Other companies are just ready to move out of Williston.

Lindberg notes that eliminating crew camps is a financial hit to Williston. Without the 2,000 beds at $800 per person a year, the city won’t collect $1.6 million in tax revenue.

“In that case, Williston has lost a large employment base,” Lindberg says. “For one thing, that affects their share of the state oil tax. That’s based on local employment figures.” 

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