A Large Influx of Male Workers Tip Community Balance
Hydraulic fracturing, sometimes called “hydro-fracking”, has been making big news in our state recently. The process involves extracting gas using a well that drills thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. The drill is then directed horizontally to reach pockets of natural gas trapped in rock formations. In our region, hydraulic fracturing is used to capture gas from a black shale rock formation called Marcellus Shale.
The New York State Senate passed a moratorium on all hydraulic fracturing operations in the entire state until spring of 2011. The bill will allow time for the United States Environmental Protection Agency to study the effects of the process on drinking water and human health. For details on the EPA’s study, click here.
The energy industry asked the county to lift requirements on temporary housing units, called "man camps". Local citizens fear that they will have no options to prevent oil and gas companies from bringing in workers to live on their property. - From The Colorado Independent News Network
Advocates of the gas extraction technique say that hydraulic fracturing will boost the economy by creating local jobs, and that drilling in the United States will decrease the nations’ dependence on foreign oil. Opponents argue that the health effects caused by water, air and land pollution, in addition to complicated land ownership issues surrounding mineral rights, far outweigh the benefits to American citizens.
One of the lesser known phenomena surrounding hydraulic fracturing is the introduction of a large male workforce in small towns where drilling operations are established. The introduction of “Man Camps” in rural communities can have significant impact on nearby communities.
Man Camps, referring to the temporary housing facilities commonly set up by oil and gas drilling companies, provide food and shelter for its employees at project locations. These camps are built to house anywhere between six to a few hundred men together for months at a time, and are necessary because the employees may otherwise struggle to find any place to live at all.
According to industry managers, the sites are highly regulated, with a zero tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol, and they randomly drug test and perform quarterly searches for drugs and guns. Oil and gas workers have been known to abuse these substances, posing safety and security risks to the host community.
Some facilities are very large, housing most of the workers together in one place far away from people – say in a wilderness area – which protects other citizens but which may disrupt natural habitats. Other times, when drilling corporations make deals with landowners to drill on their private properties, smaller versions of these camps, usually for 6-8 employees, are built right near a person’s home. In Garfield County, Colorado, the gas industry pushed for man camps on private property without county oversight.
In Colorado, landowners find themselves worrying about strangers living so close to their homes, especially if they have families. Some people are angry that the oil and gas companies seem to be getting more rights to private properties than the property owners themselves.
If they don’t move into these units workers actually move into existing communities around the drill site. While this may be good for local businesses throughout the duration of the extraction process, this solution can create housing problems. Since the industry can afford to pay higher prices for rent and housing than many existing community residents, housing prices have increased.
This sudden price increase creates difficulties for those already living in places like Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where prices of rent have doubled or even tripled when the industry came to town. Prices have climbed to the point where even moderate income families cannot afford housing.
Because of this disparity, landlords in Bradford County are not renewing leases with previous tenants because they know that they can get more money by signing on industry workers. Waiting lists for public housing and homeless assistance programs have grown rapidly here. Residents can’t even find rooms in local motels, as they are at capacity due to out-of-town employees housed by the industry.
Can hydraulic fracturing help local economies? One Pennsylvania blogger and the Huffington Post wonder how many local jobs will be created when the existence of man camps and extensive rentals cater to the needs of so many outside workers.
The impermanence of these drilling sites also means that a short-term economic boom may in the long run leave these local communities worse-off once the gas industry leaves. Each well constructed can be fractured anywhere from 10-20 times before it is no longer used. Many of these wells are constructed in a community or region at one time, and operations last about 5-7 years, even over 15 years in some cases. However long, this means that these new settlements are temporary for the duration that gas can be extracted from the rock. Are the man camp communities our modern day boomtowns, thriving for short periods of time, only to be inevitably abandoned when all of the riches have been exploited?
New York State is the first state to actually halt the hydro fracturing business from drilling in order to examine if its harmful effects are worth it, when it has been customary for the drills to happen first and the state to ask questions later. We are lucky that we have some time to really take a look at both sides of the coin.
Interested in learning more about hydraulic fracturing? Educational events are occurring throughout the region that explore both sides of the issue, visit the GrowWNY event calendar to learn more.