09/14/2014 10:29 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Planned Tuscaloosa Marine Shale Lodges Akin to Man Camps Elsewhere

This article was first published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Sept. 8, 2014 edition.

Oil and gas companies use on-site trailers and rent blocks of hotel rooms to house workers engaged in fracking the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale deposit. As oilfield and service staff reach a critical mass, particularly in southwest Mississippi, communities want to build crew lodges for them. A firm in Metairie, La. has negotiated with Mississippi's Pike County to construct modular units in McComb. Louisiana parishes are also considering these stopgap quarters. Meanwhile, man camps in North Dakota's Bakken deposit accommodate thousands of shale workers.

TMS exploration and hydraulic drilling is active in Amite, Wilkinson and Pike counties in Mississippi, and has accelerated in Tangipahoa and other parishes near southeast Louisiana's "boot strings."

"We're planning a 536-bed lodge in McComb, Mississippi, to be built in two phases on 40 acres east of Interstate-55" in Pike County, general manager Myer Stabinsky with CMS Consultants, LLC in Metairie said last week "Phase I was to be completed early next year but it may be pushed back as we iron out final details with the county." Under the first phase, the company expects to provide 240 beds and 270 parking spaces, followed by another 296 beds and 309 parking spaces in a second round.

CMS's buildings will be a bit like college dorms or grad student housing. "They'll be studio apartments, with one or two beds and private bath, a table and a refrigerator," Stabinsky said. "They won't have stoves because we'll have a dining hall." Four studio apartments will be grouped in a building. Since construction will be modular, these units shouldn't take long to assemble, he said. The complex will have recreation and laundry facilities.

The name "Shale Lodge," used in the planning stage, will be changed to something more appealing, Stabinsky said.

Britt Herrin, director of Pike County's Economic Development District, said water and sewerage lines to the lodge will be financed by the City of McComb and Pike County. "The lodge will be within the new Gateway Industrial Park, containing offices for oilfield services companies, manufacturing and warehouses," he said. "Water and sewer lines to the park will eventually be paid for by revenue from property and sales taxes and by water and sewerage fees." The park is near the McComb-Pike County Airport.

Charlotte Batson, a shale oil-and-gas consultant in Mississippi, said TMS rig workers are housed in trailers at drill sites while other company employees and oilfield service staff stay in hotels. Hotel rooms in McComb are fully booked now. "One company wanted to rent an entire hotel for several months but the hotel turned them down," she said.

In Louisiana's West Feliciana Parish, TMS drilling is still in its early phase, Parish President Kevin Couhig in St. Francisville said. Operators have used hotels so far. "But we've worked with the industry to prepare for continued development, and it appears that quality temporary housing will be needed," he said last week. "We've met with several companies that provide those units, and we're evaluating locations for worker housing."

At TMS sites operated by Goodrich Petroleum Corporation, "our company people mostly stay on location at the drill site with the rig," spokesman Daniel Edwards Jenkins in Houston said. "We've rented housing that travels with the rig. We rent very nice, furnished trailers from an oil service company that specializes in that business. I've stayed in them myself."

When asked if Goodrich would use the McComb crew lodge when it's built, Jenkins said it won't be needed for the company's employees.

Meanwhile, at Encana Services Co., which is active in Amite County, Miss., "we're still in an exploration phase at this point so the number of Encana employees on site at any one time is fairly minimal," company spokesman Doug Hock in Denver said last week. Employees stay in local hotels, with the company picking up the tab. "Until we've made a decision on further commerciality of the play, we don't have plans to build or invest in any accommodation facilities," he said.

Fracking-related strains are growing in southeast Louisiana. "I've heard hotel rooms are booked in St. Francisville and other Louisiana towns," Dan Collins said. "If things really get cranking, I suppose we'll see man camps or other facilities being outfitted to lodge workers." Man camps mushroomed to accommodate Bakken oilfield workers in North Dakota in recent years. "North Dakota has those facilities because they're in the wilderness and have so many folks to house," Collins said.

Collins discussed fracking schedules. "A worker might be 14 days on and 7 days off; or 7 days on and 7 off; or 21 days on and 14 off, depending on company policy," he said. "When they're on, they sleep in trailers next to the rig and work in shifts. When they're off, they head home for R&R, or they might go to man camps to burn off their time."

In St. Francisville, Hamilton Willis, a consultant to landowners, estimated the number of active TMS rigs at eleven now. "My guess is that each site will involve almost 200 people, for at least some part of their operations," he said last week. "A rig carries two crews of about a dozen each, stationed and billeted on site. Frack crews have round-the-clock operations and also require supply men, or sand truck drivers."

Company men, who are mainly from headquarters, rotate in and out on two-week shifts, adding two to four people to the site. "Then there's the plug drilling crew, which is less than a dozen people," Willis said. In a fracking operation, a completion crew fractures the shale well a number of times. Between each fracking stage, the crew puts a rubber stopper or plug in place to isolate that phase from the previous one.

At a site, "corporate folks will be in and out from headquarters, bringing and retrieving data and instructions," Willis said. "Workers on the production side haul product and waste away, and they do maintenance to keep the site functional and neat."

And before any of that, surveyors, a construction crew and others set up the site, Willis said. Staff is required in the company's main office to oversee and assist the project. And when sites are producing, "there will be support matters like pipelines, employing people," he said.

About 60 wells have been drilled in the TMS, and many of those operations are three years old now, Willis said. At an average cost of $13 million per well, investment by oil operators is considerable. "A symphony of workers is required," he said. "And the companies are trying to use local contractors and providers where it's appropriate."

The workers are well paid and spread money around, Collins said. "Local establishments, bars, restaurants and shops in the closest towns burst with activity as oilfield workers spend their cash," he said. But these men away from home can also cause problems. North Dakota saw an influx of prostitutes, Collins said. And authorities there have had to deal with other impacts of the gender imbalance, like excessive drinking and barroom fights.

Because of fracking, the need for improvised housing is growing nationally. And low natural gas prices, weakened in part by northwest Louisiana's Haynesville shale extraction in recent years, have stimulated industries using gas, generating still more demand for temporary housing, Charlotte Batson said.

In southwest Louisiana, brigades of workers building Sasol's petrochemical plant, Magnolia LNG's liquid gas facility and the Sempra Cameron LNG project will need sleeping quarters. The $70 million Pelican Lodge, under construction now on Port of Lake Charles property, will accommodate up to 4,000 temporary employees. The planned Moss Lake Village in Calcasieu Parish is expected to sleep 2,500 away-from-home workers on Sempra's Cameron LNG project. end