The passing of a Texas legend who changed the US energy future

Fuel Fix:
The oil and gas boom that is revolutionizing the politics and economics of energy worldwide started in the 1980s with the solitary — even stubborn — persistence of George Mitchell.

Mitchell, who died Friday at the age of 94, believed then that he could produce natural gas from a dense underground formation of shale rock beneath Fort Worth.

Few thought he would succeed and even his own engineers disagreed with his approach.

But Mitchell pushed employees at Mitchell Energy & Development to keep at it, toiling for 17 years with efforts to combine hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling in a way that could unlock natural gas.

“My engineers kept telling me, ‘You are wasting your money, Mitchell,’” he told Forbes in 2009. “And I said, ‘Well damn it, let’s figure this thing out because there is no question there is a tremendous source bed that’s about 250 feet thick.’ We made it to be the hottest thing going.”

Shale skeptics: Hydraulic fracturing pioneer Mitchell recalls early skepticism

As he approached age 80, after a long and successful career in the oil industry, natural gas started flowing at high rates from his experimental wells in what became known as the Barnett Shale play of North Texas, according to a biography on the website of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

Mitchell’s innovation produced the modern combination of hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling and slick water — a mix of water, sand and chemicals forced into a rock formation to unlock oil and gas — that transformed the world energy landscape, said Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University.

The resulting booms in shale gas and oil led to huge jumps in U.S. fossil fuel production, billions of dollars of new investments, and ballooning ranks of energy companies throughout Texas.

Mitchell’s innovations were central to the big growth in domestic energy production, said Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman, whose agency regulates the state oil and gas industry.

Since 2000, U.S. oil and natural gas production both have surged about 30 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Think about where we were before it happened,” Smitherman said. “We were contemplating importing natural gas from other countries. Electricity prices were very high in Texas… And all of that has turned completely 180 degrees.”

Mitchell’s success came with a persistent effort to squeeze natural gas out of rocks with pores 1,000 times smaller than the pores in a tombstone, Zoback said.

But beyond hoping to fracture those rocks and pull out gas, Mitchell also targeted fossil fuel-rich rocks that extended more outward than downward, he said.

“It took a decade and a half of conviction, investment and dogged determination,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author and oil industry historian Daniel Yergin said in a statement. “In the face of great skepticism and refusing to accept ‘no’ as an answer, Mitchell dramatically changed America’s energy position.”

The shale boom brought on by Mitchell’s innovation led to major growth at companies like Apache, Anadarko Petroleum, Chesapeake Energy, and Devon Energy, said Joe Pratt, an oil historian and director of the Houston History Project at the University of Houston. Devon bought Mitchell’s company for about $3 billion in 2002.

Energy majors eventually got in on the shale action, with Exxon Mobil purchasing natural gas player XTO Energy for about $25 billion in 2010.
Mitchell was a native of Galveston and did some land development there, but his biggest development success was The Woodlands north of Houston which has been one of the most dynamic "new town" developments in the US.   But his persistence in developing shale gas and tight oil formations will be his legacy.  It will save billions in imported oil and help the rebirth of US manufacturing.  George Mictchell is teh most consequential man of this century.


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