George Mitchell, 'Father of Fracking,' Dies

Categories: Environment

georgemitchellendofsummer2012.jpg
Photo by Margaret Downing
George Mitchell in Galveston in summer 2012.
George Phydias Mitchell was the kind of oilman other oilmen tell stories about. Decades before the Galveston native became known as "The Father of Fracking," he was the son of Greek immigrants who'd come up from nothing and made good millions of times over.

Mitchell died Friday at the age of 94, and as the obituaries appear -- as they are guaranteed to, since this man is an oil legend who put himself through school at Texas A&M University, the founder of a Fortune 500 company, the man who figured out how to actually get at the oil and natural gas trapped in shale -- it's easy to see why he'll likely be talked about when the older oilmen meet for 5 a.m. coffee for years to come.

In the 1980s and '90s, Mitchell was working the fields up in North Texas, trying to get at the natural gas in the Barnett Shale, a feat then commonly held to be impossible. The shale plays were known to hold oil and natural gas -- drillers like Mitchell had been punching through them for years -- but they would never be viable. Mitchell proved them all wrong.

Maybe he was just the person to do it, this guy who was living the American Dream, who had already defied the odds to become a success so many times. He worked his way through Texas A&M, running a small laundry service, selling candy and delivering stationery, according to KHOU.) He studied petroleum engineering and geology and graduated top of his class.

Hydraulic fracturing, where water, chemicals and sand are used to get a well flowing, had been around since the 1950s, but Mitchell, at the head of a wildcatting outfit, pioneered modern fracking techniques in the Barnett Shale in North Texas. Mitchell modernized fracking and figured out how to to unlock the natural gas-rich play, kicking off the shale energy boom that has reshaped the energy market, led the U.S. to export natural gas for the first time in decades and to an oil production renaissance that seemed impossible 20 years ago.

The Barnett was just the start. Fracking has created modern-day gold rushes on top of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, the Eagle Ford in South Texas, the Permian Basin in West Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota. It has changed things, for better or worse, depending on who you're talking to in Texas and in the U.S. Even Mitchell, a quintessential oilman, urged the government to step in and begin regulating these drilling practices last year, noting that fracking could be dangerous if it wasn't done properly, according to Forbes.

Mitchell and his wife, Cynthia Woods Mitchell, will likely be remembered for their philanthropy, for injecting life-giving funds into Galveston, Mitchell's hometown. He'll also be remembered as the creator of that unique, specific suburban enclave, The Woodlands. The obituaries will note that he and his wife had ten children and stayed married until her death in 2009, that he never forgot where he came from, and they'll tell the story that sounds a lot like living the American Dream. But it's Mitchell's work in fracking that has reshaped the world, and that's what will get him in the history books.

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