George Mitchell: Fracking pioneer and philanthropist


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The Independent Online

George Mitchell lived the American Dream, rising from humble beginnings to become a successful  billionaire businessman and philanthropist.

In the late 1990s, the self-made entrepreneur proved all his advisers and detractors wrong when, after years of struggle, and after risking millions of dollars of his own money, he pioneered an industry revolution that has transformed the global energy supply landscape for oil and natural gas. His ideas have also helped to turn the US from a heavy user, dependent on the Middle East, into a major producer – thus safeguarding the country’s energy security for decades to come.

Although criticised in some quarters, according to The Economist, “few business people have done as much to change the world as George Mitchell.” In 2002, he sold his company to Devon Energy Corporation for $3.5bn and started devoting his time and money to philanthropy.

Dubbed “the Father of Shale”, Mitchell further developed the already known technique of “fracking” which had been in existence since the 1940s. His innovative technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involved drilling straight down, then making a horizontal 90-degree turn to penetrate shale formations. The process involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into dense shale rock at high pressure, creating tiny fissures that release the microscopic bubbles of gas trapped within.

The major problem was capturing the fuel – until Mitchell succeeded in new drilling and production techniques. The same techniques worked for crude oil extraction. These drilling innovations have revolutionised oil and gas exploration globally, from the US and Canada to Australia, from Argentina to Poland.

US gas and oil production peaked in 1972 and 1970 respectively – and with most of the industrialised nations shackled to the volatile Middle East’s oil production, the breakthrough came at just the right time. By the mid-2000s, natural gas production in the US began to soar and, in 2005, the US produced about the same amount of gas it had in 1968. 2012 saw the US produce record amounts, and more gas than any other nation, while still not working at full capacity. Crude oil production, too, has risen by 46 per cent since 2008, and, according to The International Energy Agency, the US could be the world’s biggest crude producer by the end of the decade.

The first wells were set-up in unpopulated areas, but as the technique has spread, the practice has drawn criticism from environmentalists and landowners, who fear the chemicals used will pollute groundwater and the air and cause other environmental issues. However, the industry has promised to ensure good engineering practices to curb abuses. Mitchell and Mayor Bloomberg of New York said, “We can frack safely if we frack sensibly.”

Born in the port city of Galveston, Texas, in 1919, George Phydias Mitchell was the son of Greek émigrés who had arrived separately around 1901. His father initially worked on the railways before changing his name to Mike Mitchell, because Americans could  not pronounce his name, Savvas Paraskevopoulos. Settling in Galveston, he set up a shoe-shine business, living above it. Mitchell’s mother died when he was 13 and he completed his schooling at 16.

Too young for university, Mitchell worked for his older brother, Johnny, in the oil fields, where he developed an interest in gas and oil. He graduated first in his class in 1940, with a degree in petroleum engineering and geology from the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (Texas A&M University).

Upon graduation, Mitchell worked as an engineer for Amoco in its oil fields, and witnessed first-hand the bonanza of the early discoveries of oil, before serving in the Army Corps of Engineers during the Second World War.

In 1946, Mitchell settled in Texas; but instead of going back to Amoco, he made his first fortune as a “wildcatter” – an independent oilman who buys land at financial risk and drills exploratory wells in areas not known to hold oil. He joined a newly formed oil-exploration company, Oil Drilling, which eventually became Mitchell Energy & Development Corp, and went public in 1972. Mitchell and his brother were early partners in the company.

Mitchell participated in about 10,000 wells over his career. His company drilled its first well in the Barnett Shale, north Texas, in 1981 and, after almost two decades of painstaking experimentation, in the late 1990s, Mitchell’s new drilling techniques reached fruition. Barnett Shale reportedly has the largest producible reserves of any onshore natural gas field in the US.

Mitchell’s success in the energy industry had come in the twilight of his career, but he had already enjoyed success as a real-estate visionary. In 1974, Mitchell developed The Woodlands, a 25,000-acre forested community scattered with parks, a mall and a 1.4 mile-long man-made canal, located about 30 miles north of Houston. It now has a population of 100,000 and is home to many corporations, including Anadarko Petroleum Corp. The world’s largest oil company, Exxon Mobil Corp, is building a 385-acre campus nearby to accommodate 10,000 employees. Mitchell sold the development in 1997.

In 2010, Mitchell joined the Giving Pledge, sponsored by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, a campaign that encourages billionaires to commit to giving most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Mitchell and his wife, whose wealth was estimated at $2bn by Forbes, supported the arts and a number of humanitarian and environmental causes. The total gifts from their foundation are estimated to exceed $400m.

Cynthia died in 2009. Mitchell is survived by their 10 children.

George Mitchell, entrepreneur and philanthropist: born Galveston, Texas 21 May 1919; married 1943 Cynthia Woods (died 2009, 10 children); died Galveston 26 July 2013.