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Workers In US 'Man Camps' Power Oil Boom

(c) Sky News 2012

In the northwest corner of North Dakota, a newly-discovered oil field is fuelling a jobs bonanza.

At a time when national unemployment remains stubbornly above 8%, in North Dakota it is 3.2%. In Williams county, at the centre of the boom, it is 0.9%.

There are more jobs available than the industry can fill because of the Bakken shale oil reserve , which lies two miles underneath the prairie.

It has been known about since the 1950s but scientists only developed the right technology to extract the oil there in late 2009.

The United States Geological Survey has estimated there are at least four billion barrels of recoverable oil in the Bakken reserve. It stretches for 15,000 square miles all the way in to Canada and Montana, and is attracting thousands of temporary workers from across the US.

At last count, 24,000 of them, mainly men, were living in what have become known as "man camps", lured by the prospect of earning up to $100,000 (£65,000) a year working in the oilfields.

Some camps are an unofficial collection of trailers collected together at the side of the road. Others are run by professional lodging companies, who erect rows and rows of steel modules, housing hundreds of men in single, dormitory-like accommodation.

At the Solsten camp in Trenton, workers pay $125 (£80) per night. It buys three meals a day and strict rules - no outdoor boots inside, no alcohol, no pornography, no weapons, and few visitors.

Camp manager Bob Hedburg told Sky News the rules are important.

"Most people here are just good Christian Americans trying to feed their families ... but with 300 men on site there can be security issues, and you have control of people."

At breakfast, oil workers said they missed their families but had no choice about leaving home to find work.

Lorry driver David Edwards said: "I feel like a pioneer.

"If you look at it economically there are sacrifices that need to be taken to support my family to keep them alive.

Oil rig worker Bob Williams said: "I've got a wife and four kids, I've been here two years now and I've pretty much watched my two year old grow up in pictures, but somebody's got to pay the bills."

Wayne Abbot, a construction worker from Oregon, said he left home when the work dried up and has not been back. He said he had no complaints about the man camp, except the small rooms reminded him of prison.

"Most people around here have been to jail a few times. You get people coming from all over the country, so there are quite a few characters," he said.

Justin Bailey works at Solsten camp. He is 30 years old and got married three weeks ago. He and his wife have a one-year-old baby and they live in Arkansas.

He gets to see them once every four weeks after he finishes a run of 28 night shifts but he says it is still worth it.

"With the hours and the pay the way it is here I make probably three times what I was making in Little Rock, so that way it's very good and I don't have to pay for anything while I'm here, so that really helps out a lot," he said.

But not everybody is happy with the oil boom.

The closest town is Williston. Its (Euronext: ALITS.NX - news) population has doubled in four years and the infrastructure there is groaning under the strain.

There are not enough teachers, doctors or police officers.

Roads are filled with HGVs, and traffic accident rates have increased significantly.

Builders cannot construct housing fast enough to meet demand and non-oil workers cannot afford them when they are finished because of the competition for somewhere to stay.

Williston's director of economic development Tom Rolfstad said the task his town faced was like "getting ready for the Olympics".

He said: "It hurts the small business person - how do you find somebody to make hamburgers, or clean beds or to haul the garbage when rents are that high?

"The oil field workers seems to get the housing and the rest of us have to try to get by with what we can.

“The message that went out is 'if you are flat broke come to North Dakota and we’ll fix your life'.

"What we really want are skilled workers who bring their families to live here and invest their cash back in the community instead of sending it to another state."

His problems are set to continue for some time. It is estimated the oil field will sustain economic production for 30-45 years.

:: The US has released its July employment figures with non-farm payroll up by 163,000, much higher than the forecast 100,000 and far above June's 64,000 boost – however the jobless rate has also risen to 8.3%.