Oil bust leaves energy industry, real-estate sector locked in battle over empty oilfield worker camps

Geoffrey Morgan, Financial Post

A no trespassing sign collects dust next to an empty, chained-off parking lot for an equally empty work camp in the heart of North Dakota oil country. The sign and limp chain haven’t kept curious locals from trying to get a closer look at the Black Gold camp – a few brave ones have confessed on condition of anonymity to looking in the windows and scurrying through the vacant halls.

Black Gold is one of many camps that are haphazardly scattered in and around Williston, the hub of the state’s shale oil boom. This camp on the northern edge of town was once filled with hundreds of oilfield workers during the shale boom, but, now, like others in the area, sits as empty as a ghost town as crude prices have collapsed.

Civic politicians in Williston want the camp gone and have voted to give all camp operators within the boundaries of the city notice that they will need to clean up and leave this July. The deadline is an attempt to turn the city’s transient workers, who fly in and out on work shifts, into permanent, property-tax paying residents.

It has also put the local government in the middle of a fight between the energy industry, which has threatened legal action if they are kicked out, and real-estate developers that are keen to sell or rent their apartments and condos to oilfield workers currently in camps.

Across the border, officials in Canadian cities are, like their southern counterparts south, also trying to figure out the best way to move oilfield workers from camps into permanent housing.

“What we would like to see (companies) do is have workers live in the community and not promote the work camps,” said Craig Copeland, mayor of the heavy oil hub of Cold Lake, Alta.

Allan Vinni, deputy mayor of Wood Buffalo, a large municipality that includes Fort McMurray, notes, “We’ve got tons of condo buildings that are standing empty.”

Vinni introduced a motion in Fort McMurray last week obligating council to find ways to encourage oil companies to move more of their employees into town. A meeting is scheduled with those companies for April 19, and the work-camp situation is the only item on the agenda.

Vinni said he’s not looking to pick a fight like the one that has broken out in North Dakota, but said Fort McMurray is in the middle of a very difficult economic downturn that could be helped by more permanent residents. “It’s very respectful, but, for us on council, it’s our job to stick up for our town,” he said.

During the oil boom, there were 80,000 people living in camps around Fort McMurray, flying in and out of an area where there were not enough locals to do the work. Today, Vinni said, the number is estimated at 26,000.

In North Dakota, there are also thousands of vacant beds throughout camps in the Williston Basin, the shale oil formation named for the city at its centre. In 2011, the county surrounding Williston approved enough new camps to house 12,000 workers.

Target Logistics Management LLC, owned by Baltimore-based Algeco/Scotsman Holding Sarl, is one of the largest camp providers in North Dakota and has space for 6,432 workers spread throughout its facilities in various cities and counties.

During the boom, Target even imported camps that were used in Whistler, B.C., during Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Those portable structures fit together to make the Muddy River Lodge in Williston. Today, the company’s occupancy rate in North Dakota is hovering around 40 per cent.

Target has threatened to sue the city if it passes the ordinance requiring camp companies to leave in July (it would not affect any of the camps in the surrounding county). A vote is scheduled for April 12.

I think it’s a crucial mistake on the part of Williston, because if we do go back into a tremendous uptick, we’re going to be back to where we were.

“This is certainly not the end,” company spokesperson Randy Pruett said in an emailed statement. He added Target “will do everything in our power to continue operating as long as there’s market demand.”

Like Fort McMurray, Williston’s population has dramatically grown. Though Williston Economic Development reports the city’s population shrank by 10.9 per cent to 31,143 people during the course of 2015, the city has still more than doubled in size during the past six years.

But as the collapse of crude oil prices persists, North Dakota’s crude oil production is declining, fewer workers are flying in and out of town. Local realtors say housing prices have dropped 16 per cent and some of the camps are already closing down due to low occupancy.

North Dakota Petroleum Council president Ron Ness said the city’s commissioners are under pressure from real-estate developers not to renew the camp providers’ temporary use permits.

Ness is backing Target and an alliance it has formed with oil companies and other camp providers against the city.

“I think it’s a crucial mistake on the part of Williston, because if we do go back into a tremendous uptick, we’re going to be back to where we were,” he said. “We had nowhere to put people.”

However, many city residents believe the city commission is right to order the camp providers to leave, since new condos, townhouses and apartment buildings are sitting empty and prices are steadily falling.

Bill Murphy and Mitzi Bestall of Re/Max Bakken Realty said the city courted real-estate developers during the boom and cited the number of people living in camps and temporary housing, such as RV parks, as evidence of the need for more apartments and housing.

“There will always be a need for some type of temporary housing,” Murphy said. However, he said real-estate developers believed the temporary permits the city handed out to camp providers were just that: temporary.

The city’s fast-paced population growth, which fuelled the need for temporary housing, also led private-equity firms such as New York-based giant KKR & Co. LP to heavily invest in building neighbourhoods, townhouses, apartments and condominiums, as did players like Investors Real Estate Trust (IRET).

As a result, new neighbourhoods have sprung up west of Williston’s older town centre, and there are more new developments planned — if oil activity levels recover.

As it is, Ness said that he expects oil production in the state, which jumped to more than 1 million barrels per day in 2015 from 200,000 bpd in 2004, to decline to roughly 900,000 bpd by the end of this year.

City commissioners and locals agree that Williston is overbuilt. Duane Iverson, one of the few people born and raised in the city, is trying to sell a house for about US$100,000 that he said would have fetched more than double that during the boom.

Housing booms have similarly gone bust in Canadian oil towns such as Fort McMurray and Cold Lake, leaving behind a mix of empty condos and houses and near-empty camps in the oilfields.

Neither city wants to get into a situation like the one currently unfolding in Williston, where the city is caught between the energy and real-estate sectors in an increasingly acrimonious fight.

In Cold Lake, Mayor Copeland said it is difficult to encourage oil workers to buy homes right now, given that tens of thousands have been laid off as the downturn persists.

“The people working in the oilpatch are holding onto their money pretty tight,” he said, “because they don’t know if their job is next.”

Financial Post



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