• Texas oilman, fracking pioneer Mitchell dies at 94
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     | July 27,2013
     
    AP File PHOTO

    George Mitchell, chairman and CEO of The Mitchell family Corporation, is seen in 2009 in his downtown Houston office. Mitchell, Texas oil man, real estate developer, and one of Houston’s wealthiest businessmen, died Friday at his home in Galveston, a spokeswoman said. He was 94.

    HOUSTON — George Mitchell leveraged a penchant for hard work, an appetite for risk and dogged persistence in the face of futility into a technological breakthrough that reshaped the global energy industry and made the wildcat oilman a billionaire.

    Mitchell, the developer and philanthropist who also is considered the father of fracking, died Friday at his home in Galveston, his family said.

    He was 94.

    The son of a Greek immigrant who ran a cleaning and shoeshine business in Galveston became one of the wealthiest men in the U.S. His dogged pursuit of natural gas he and others knew were trapped in wide, thin layers of rock deep underground brought an entirely new — and enormous — trove of oil and gas within reach.

    His technological breakthrough also transformed economies in states like North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania is expected to migrate through the world.

    For the entire oil and gas age, drillers had searched for hydrocarbons that had seeped out of layers of sedimentary rock over millions of years and collected into large pools. Once found, they were easy to produce. Engineers merely had to drill into the pools and the natural pressure of the earth would send huge volumes of oil and gas up to the surface.

    These pools are exceedingly rare, though, and they were quickly being tapped out as the world’s consumption grew, raising fears that the end of the oil and gas age would soon be at hand and raising prices to alarming levels.

    Mitchell’s idea: Go directly to the sedimentary rock holding the oil and gas, essentially speeding up geological processes by thousands of millennia.

    He figured out how to drill into and then along layers of gas-laden rock, then force a slurry of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into the rock to crack it open and release the hydrocarbons. This process, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, is the now-common industry practice known generally as fracking.

    Engineers after Mitchell learned to adapt the process to oil-bearing rock. The U.S. is now the world’s largest producer of natural gas and is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer by the end of the decade, according to the International Energy Agency.

    Daniel Yergin, the energy historian and author of The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World said in a statement that Mitchell “Changed the world energy outlook in the 21st century and set in motion the global rebalancing of oil and gas that is now occurring.”

    The fracking boom sent natural gas prices plummeting, reducing energy costs for U.S. consumer and businesses. And by boosting U.S. oil production it has sharply reduced oil imports.

    It has led to a dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and emissions of toxic chemicals such as mercury in the U.S. by replacing coal in electric power generation.

    At the same time, some environmentalists worry the fracking process or the disposal of fracking wastewater can leak into drinking water supplies and contaminate them. Mitchell’s family, on the family foundation website, said he died of natural causes while surrounded by relatives.

    “His story was quintessentially American,” the family statement said. “George P. Mitchell was raised as a child of meager means who, throughout his life, believed in giving back to the community that made his success possible and lending a hand to the less fortunate struggling to reach their potential.”

    George Phydias Mitchell and his wife, Cynthia, who died in 2009, had 10 children. Their work together was “dedicated to making the world a more hospitable and sustainable place,” their family said.

    Mitchell graduated first in his class of 1940 at Texas A&M University with degrees in petrochemical engineering and geology. He helped pay for his school costs by running a tailoring and laundry business in College Station and selling candy and stationery to his fellow student Aggies, then in later years became the school’s largest benefactor with donations topping $95 million.

    This year, the annual Forbes list of wealthiest Americans ranked him 239th with a net worth of $2 billion.

    Mitchell spent four years in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Afterward, he struck out on his own with a brother and a partner as a wildcatter operation.

    Over his career, he participated in drilling some 10,000 wells, including more than 1,000 wildcats — wells drilled away from known fields. His company, Mitchell Energy & Development, was credited with more than 200 oil and 350 natural gas discoveries.

    The firm spent nearly two decades developing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, finally finding success in North Texas’ Barnett Shale formation in the 1990s.

    “There’s no point in mincing words. Some people thought it was stupid,” Dan Steward, a geologist who began working with the Texas natural gas firm Mitchell Energy in 1981 told The Associated Press in an interview last year. Steward estimated in the early years, “probably 90 percent of the people” in the firm didn’t believe shale gas would be profitable, and that Mitchell’s company didn’t even cover the cost of fracking on shale tests until the 36th well was drilled.

    But he credited the company namesake as a tenacious visionary.

    “There’s not a lot of companies that would stay with something this long,” he said. “Most companies would have given up.”

    “Because of Mitchell’s persistence ... we are today witnessing an unprecedented boom in domestic energy production and the associated economic benefits in Texas and nationwide,” Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman agreed Friday.

    Mitchell sold his energy company in 2002 for $3.1 billion.

    Over the years, he spent tens of millions rebuilding his hometown of Galveston, resurrecting a long-dormant annual Mardi Gras celebration and singlehandedly providing money helping to restore the city’s historic downtown Strand District.

    He donated the land for Texas A&M University at Galveston.

    “To say he was a great man with foresight and generosity isn’t enough,” Adm. Robert Smith III, the school’s president, said. “His contributions to this university literally made this institution possible.”

    His Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, founded in 1979, has made more than $400 million in gifts.

    Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst both called Mitchell a true Texas legend.

    In the early 1970s, Mitchell began developing The Woodlands, a suburban Houston master-planned community designed as a place for mixed-income residential development with jobs and amenities nearby while preserving the East Texas forest and other natural resources that covered the 27,000 acres. He later would call it his most satisfying achievement.

    The Woodlands is now home to about 100,000 people and one of the nation’s busiest outdoor performing arts and entertainment venues there carries his wife’s name, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

    “His ambition and success have transformed our region,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said. “He was a visionary, and showed his love for Houston through his work and hometown pride.”

    “He had the right mix of vision, optimism and tenacity, and a love for his fellow man,” the Mitchell family statement said. “There’s no doubt that he helped make this world a better place.”

    Funeral arrangements were not immediately released.

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