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Know the West

Man Camp

Energy companies turn to portable dormitories during housing crunch


Just before dawn on a mid-December day, the white lights of a drill rig illuminate low clouds. Roughnecks mill around restlessly in their insulated coveralls and work boots while their supervisor gives his safety speech. Today, they’ll drill yet another natural gas well into the rich Piceance Basin.

The 20 men on this crew come from places like Tennessee, Louisi-ana and Wyoming for lucrative jobs in the gas fields. They will spend the next two weeks working 12-hour days on Patterson drill rig 171, take a two-week break, then return for another stint in EnCana Oil & Gas’ 45,000-acre field. Half the crew covers the night shift, the other half, the day. At the end of the day, the commute is short: The entire crew lives in a two-story manufactured home that travels with the drill rig.

Dozens of these “man camps” are scattered throughout the area, housing hundreds of workers. And more are coming: As houses, apartments and hotels fill up with the energy boom’s workers, the industry has turned to these self-contained, mobile housing units. Although sometimes inconvenient, they provide a partial solution to a housing problem spiraling out of control.

“We got to a point where nothing was available,” says Robert Samples, drilling supervisor for EnCana. His company turned to man camps a year ago, when housing all but disappeared for the growing army of gas workers.

Six to a room

Even before gas rigs loomed over western Colorado’s Garfield County, the area felt growing pains. As working-class people were priced out of Aspen, Vail and nearby towns, they moved down valley to towns like Rifle, Silt and Parachute. The population of Garfield County, with its 60-mile commuters and influx of baby-boomer retirees, is set to double over the next 30 years.

Add the crush of oil and gas workers in the Piceance Basin, one of the most heavily drilled fields in the country. A county study predicts Rifle, a town of 8,100, will balloon to nearly 44,000 by 2030. The town’s vacancy rate has shrunk to 1 percent. Single-family homes list for over $275,000, up about $80,000 from just a year ago. Rentals are almost nonexistent, and hotels, once full only during hunting season, are booked year-round by gas workers. The situation is so tight that roughnecks working different shifts sometimes alternate sleeping shifts in the same bed.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this hard to find a place to live,” says Jorge Leo, 31, who came from Farmington, N.M., to build pipelines for the industry. He and his wife, Wanda, share a double room at the Red River Inn in Rifle with their four children, ages 4 to 11. Daughter Lexis sleeps with her parents. Jorge and Daniel share the other bed, and Mercedes sleeps on a rollaway cot between them. They cook meals on an electric skillet, wash dishes in the bathroom sink and stow their clothes in suitcases, waiting, as they have for six months, to find an apartment.

“A motel,” Wanda Leo says, “is no way to raise your children.”

It all looks familiar to Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert. “When I first came here in ’81,” he says, “housing was such that there were people living under bridges and culverts, tents and campers. There was no place to live.” That was during the region’s last energy boom, when high petroleum prices fueled a bonanza in efforts to extract fuel from oil shale deposits. Then came Black Sunday — May 2, 1982 — when Exxon laid off 2,200 workers from its Parachute plant. Western Colorado’s economy plummeted. Towns like Rifle emptied.

At an arm’s length

Man camps, often far from town — one EnCana site is reachable only by helicopter — not only provide housing, but also help keep other problems at bay.

“We’ve had advice from certain communities that they don’t want certain people in town,” says Jill Davis, spokeswoman for Shell’s Mahogany oil shale research facility, which houses some 125 workers.

Gas workers have helped double Rifle’s sales tax revenue during the past three years. They have also contributed to a double-digit rise in crime. “It’s not like an old hick town anymore,” says Melissa Sparkman, bartender at the Sports Corner Saloon, where the crowd has gotten bigger but rowdier and the list of “86’d” patrons has doubled. “In some ways it’s good. In a lot of ways it’s bad.” For workers spending long days on the rigs, temporary housing close to the job could prove safer for everyone, says Garfield County senior planner Fred Jarman. Workers are less likely to carouse in town, and man camps make it easier to control alcohol and drug abuse, a problem that has plagued the industry. “We can go over and look a guy in the eyeballs and see where he’s been, where he’s slept, what he’s been up to,” says Samples, the drilling supervisor. Sleeping yards from the rigs, he says, workers are more productive and build an esprit de corps.

“You’re with them 24 hours a day. You can’t work if you’re not thinking and acting as a family,” says Danny Rios, 30, of Greeley, Colo. A toolpusher, or rig manager, Rios just returned from San Jose, Calif., where he proposed to his girlfriend. Fortunately, she’s become accustomed to his back-and-forth lifestyle, he says.

And the accommodations aren’t so bad. At the EnCana camp, caterers serve up steak, crab and gumbo, wash the workers’ clothes and clean their rooms. Workers share a satellite TV and a computer, and they have free phone calls home.

“If you’re a roughneck out here working and you’re away from home, it appeals to you,” says Dale Hunt, a supervisor on the Patterson rig. In an area where housing becomes scarcer every day, it’s often the only option.

The author writes from Carbondale, Colorado.