Obituary: George P. Mitchell / Texas oilman pioneered 'fracking' technique

May 21, 1919 - July 26, 2013


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Billionaire Texas oilman, developer and philanthropist George P. Mitchell, considered the father of fracking, died Friday at his home in Galveston, his family said.

He was 94.

Mr. Mitchell, the son of a Greek immigrant who ran a dry cleaning 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 led to a revolution in oil and gas production in the U.S., and one that is expected to migrate around the world. The advancement also transformed economies in states like North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania.

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.

Mr. 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 now-common industry practice known generally as fracking.

Engineers after Mr. 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 Mr. 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. consumers 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

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

Over the years, Mr. Mitchell 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.

In the early 1970s, Mr. 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.

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