George P. Mitchell, 'responsible for most important energy innovation of the 21st century,' dead at 94

George P. Mitchell turned hydraulic fracturing from an experimental technique into an energy-industry mainstay, making it possible to pump oil and gas from once untappable rocks and unleashing an energy boom across the U.S.

Known as the father of fracking, Mr. Mitchell died Friday at age 94 at his home in Galveston, Texas.

The co-founder of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. spent years pushing his company's engineers to find ways to get more natural gas out of the ground, especially from rocks that seemed too tough to drill. They finally figured out successful ways to break up shale rocks with pressurized water, chemicals and sand in the process known as hydraulic fracturing.

"George Mitchell, more than anyone else, is responsible for the most important energy innovation of the 21st century," said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of consulting firm IHS and a Pulitzer Prize winning author on energy.

The son of poor Greek immigrants, Mr. Mitchell graduated with a degree in petroleum engineering from what is now Texas A&M University in 1940. After serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, Mr. Mitchell and his brother Johnny started an oil exploration business in Houston in 1946.

His first efforts at fracking, in the late 1970s, were expensive, and at times investors and his board of directors questioned the spending. But by the late 1990s the company had figured out the right mix of techniques and materials to produce shale gas economically, and began to do so on a major scale.

Devon Energy Corp. bought Mr. Mitchell's firm in 2002 for $3.1 billion, combined the hydraulic fracturing techniques with horizontal drilling, and helped launch the current surge in oil and gas production.

In the 1970s Mr. Mitchell put his energy wealth to work developing thousands of acres of pine forest north of Houston into a master-planned residential community, The Woodlands.

"George didn't want The Woodlands to become just another bedroom community but to also become a major employment center," said Bill White, a former Houston mayor and assistant secretary of energy. "That's why today there are just as many people commuting into The Woodlands as there are out of it."

Mr. Mitchell was also instrumental in preserving large parts of his hometown of Galveston, a coastal city that has struggled economically. Last year he joined with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's philanthropic foundation to study ways to develop oil and natural gas reserves around the country in an environmentally responsible way.

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