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Oil backers push to keep crew camps as decision looms for Williston

WILLISTON, N.D. - A grassroots group sponsored by the North Dakota Petroleum Council is fighting to keep crew camps in Williston as city leaders prepare to vote on banning the temporary housing for oilfield workers.

WILLISTON, N.D. – A grassroots group sponsored by the North Dakota Petroleum Council is fighting to keep crew camps in Williston as city leaders prepare to vote on banning the temporary housing for oilfield workers.

The Bakken Backers, a coalition of community and business leaders and others who support the growth of North Dakota’s oil industry, launched an online campaign this week to urge the Williston City Commission to keep crew camps.

“Closing crew camps will force companies and rotational workers back into the local housing market and prices will likely increase,” Director Rob Lindberg wrote in a “call to action” for members. “We will fail at making the Bakken an ever better place to live.”

Members submitted 205 online responses to Williston city leaders within 24 hours, Lindberg said.

The City Commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday night on an ordinance that would require crew camps in city limits and the city’s extraterritorial area to close by July.

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Williston Mayor Howard Klug said he continues to be a staunch supporter of closing the crew camps now that there is more permanent housing available.

“I’ve always said ­that temporary housing needs to go when things are catching up,” Klug said. “We don’t want to be a temporary town.”

Klug said he’s surprised that so many people have weighed in on the crew camp issue when they don’t have “boots on the ground” in Williston.

“I’m surprised that somebody that doesn’t live in Williston is throwing out that much information when they’re not from here,” Klug said.

While the Bakken Backers group is funded by the Petroleum Council, the grassroots organization operates fairly independently, said Tessa Sandstrom, spokeswoman for Petroleum Council, an oil industry group.

The Bakken Backers online campaign allowed members to submit form letters to city commissioners, asking them to vote for a long-term solution that includes crew camps.

Klug has been joined by other commissioners who said they think it’s time to phase out crew camps now that housing supply in WIlliston has caught up with demand.

But Commissioner Deanette Piesek said she’s hearing concerns from both Williston residents and the oil industry that it’s too soon to eliminate crew camps. Rotational workers need temporary housing and the industry fears it will lose its skilled workforce, said Piesek, who works with the oil industry as CEO of TrainND in Williston.

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In addition, Piesek said the city needs temporary housing for crews working on road projects and other infrastructure. Piesek said she’s concerned about how the ordinance would affect workers who are constructing the city’s wastewater treatment plant who live in a camp that would be closed by the ordinance.

If crew camp residents move into permanent housing, that would likely put pressure on rental prices for service workers and others, said Lynea Geinert, coordinator for Community Connections in Williston.

Geinert, who works for a ministry of the Western North Dakota Synod of the ELCA, said while rents have begun to decrease, there are still many turning to the Salvation Army or churches for rental assistance.

Geinert said she’s reaching out to other social service agencies and church groups and urging them to contact Williston city leaders.

“If they close the crew camps, that’s going to artificially raise those rents again,” Geinert said. “Now all of a sudden we’ve got people left out in the cold.”

Travis Kelley, regional vice president for Target Logistics, the largest crew camp operator in North Dakota, said the company’s camps north of Williston that would be affected by the ordinance are about 70 percent full. Many residents are out-of-state rotational workers, he said.

“I think a lot of those folks may just find employment elsewhere versus setting their roots down here if they’re forced into making a decision,” Kelley said.

Although Target Logistics anticipates a decline in business in the Bakken over the next year, the company sees a long-term worker housing need in Williston, especially when oil prices recover.

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“We definitely feel it’s going to come back and we're still going to be a needed option on the market,” Kelley said.

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