George P. Mitchell: Planting seeds of his legacy in Texas

The revitalization of oil and natural gas production in the United States can largely be traced back to one man, George Mitchell, who spent a decade trying to figure out how to employ refined hydraulic fracturing techniques to coax more gas out of the tight Barnett Shale formation.

But Mitchell's name and legacy are familiar to people here in many other ways -- philanthropic initiatives, parks, research centers and educational programs.

These two legacies are coming to define how history will view Mitchell many decades from now.

Nationally, Mitchell is known as "the father of fracking," the oil and gas professional who sparked the current flurry of drilling activity by sharing his experiences with successful shale oil and gas recovery. By coupling Mitchell's methods with horizontal drilling technologies that have advanced offshore, energy companies have unlocked decades of gas supplies and are reversing the growth of imported crude oil to the United States.

But locally and throughout Texas, Mitchell and his family have been busy establishing a different kind of legacy -- philanthropy in the commitment to sustainability and science.

"Over the past five years, we began focusing our grant making in the key areas that are important to the family, particularly around the issue of sustainability," said Mitchell, 93. "We moved from supporting large institutions to focusing on portfolios of grants that will make significant impact on specific issues, particularly issues important to Texas, in which we want to see lasting change."

Aside from natural gas, his Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation actively supports renewable energy initiatives and water sustainability issues. Mitchell has also been a generous supporter of Texas A&M University and has steered foundation grants toward advancing physics and astronomy research. It was Mitchell who led the effort that created the Houston Advanced Research Center, part of an earlier failed bid to see an ultra-advanced particle accelerator built in Texas.

But it's his work on bridging the divide between industry and environmentalists and promoting sustainability science throughout Texas that may leave the biggest mark, said Katherine Lorenz, the foundation's president and Mitchell's granddaughter.

"I particularly am proud of that work because it goes so well with his legacy," Lorenz said in an interview. "It feels so right for so many reasons. It feels so right for his legacy, for the world."

Mitchell stopped giving face-to-face interviews at the end of last year but agreed to submit a written response to a list of questions EnergyWire provided to him. In his replies, he explains why an oil and gas industry professional like him has devoted so much time and money toward establishing nature preserves, advancing sustainability research and education, and even promoting renewable energy in Texas. The exchange has been condensed here.

EnergyWire: Why did you establish the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation?

George Mitchell: I grew up in a poor family -- my parents were Greek immigrants. While my family did not have much, we always opened our home to those in need. My parents were always very generous with the little that we had. I owe much of my success to the people who helped me along the way. My wife, Cynthia, was always very giving, and she was a great inspiration in starting the foundation. We both grew up with very little, and we always felt it was important to give back to the communities that helped us achieve success.

EW: Are the philanthropic efforts of oil and gas companies and individuals in the industry focused on the right causes?

GM: There are infinite needs for funding environmental protection, but funding these issues is consistently a small fraction of overall philanthropic investment. The Mitchell Foundation argues that any philanthropy interested in health or education, for instance, should also be funding environmental causes. There's a demonstrated connection between environmental quality and human health, between the environment and quality of life, environment and education, and even environmental quality and community crime rates. To really help overcome many of society's most pressing problems, we need to vastly increase philanthropic investment in environmental protection and sustainable solutions.

EW: How has the foundation evolved since its founding in 1978?

GM: While we have always been philanthropic, greater financial success and more funding requests inspired us to create a more formal structure for our philanthropy. Under the leadership of our daughter, Meredith Dreiss, the foundation evolved into a true family foundation in which our children and grandchildren, who have reached the age of 25, have a voice at the table. Over the past five years, we began focusing our grant making in the key areas that are important to the family, particularly around the issue of sustainability.

EW: Is the oil and gas industry advancing and adapting newer technologies more rapidly today than in the past?

GM: New drilling technologies, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, were developed decades ago and applied in more and more challenging formations and locations. Development of new materials, environmental protections, imaging and computer simulation, technologies for geological exploration, and many other innovations are constantly being developed, adapted and deployed in new ways. When you compare the energy industry to other industries -- say, for example, the auto industry, which hasn't evolved beyond the internal combustion engine -- it's clear that the energy industry is adept at figuring out how it can be more efficient and more innovative.

EW: Will we eventually see the same type of onshore hydraulic fracturing practices common now move offshore?

GM: The technology to conduct hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling offshore is basically the same as onshore. However, there are obstacles that currently make these activities cost-prohibitive. For instance, the large equipment necessary for fracturing could not be contained on an offshore platform. I estimate that it will be at least 10 years before we see these practices move offshore.

EW: How do you interpret the broad public opposition to hydraulic fracturing that is seen in some parts of the U.S.?

GM: Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and other states that are familiar with these practices and have appropriate regulations to manage them generally have not seen the public outcry that you see in the Northeast. The residents of the Northeast haven't been properly informed about oil and gas practices -- these states do not have a history of adequate regulations, and some companies have not taken enough care to properly inform communities about the risks and opportunities of these new practices.

EW: The oil and gas industry in the U.S. has for a long time been subject to boom-and-bust cycles. The industry is in a boom period now. Is the bust coming?

GM: With the supplies and technologies that are now available to the U.S., I expect the market to continue to stabilize, and don't anticipate significant changes or "busts" in the industry.

EW: Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?

GM: The hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling processes are critical technologies, and I take pride that independent operators undertook early experiments in the development of these technologies. We could have patented our proprietary process and made significantly more money. I already had enough money from the sale of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. to Devon Energy, and I was more motivated to introduce this technology into the public domain -- make it public record -- so that the world could benefit from natural gas as an important energy and fuel source.

We helped launch the field of sustainability science through the funding of [the book] "Our Common Journey" and the National Academy of Sciences. Sustainability science is a framework of decisionmaking that uses interdisciplinary science within a defined region to examine and solve problems related to the interrelationship of environment and economic development. I am proud of the work the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation does using the sustainability science framework to address the pressing environmental issues of our time.

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