The energy visionary

For decades, the Barnett Shale was an enigma. Oilmen knew that the formation, which stretches for miles under north Texas, contained vast quantities of natural gas. But they wrote it off as too difficult and expensive to extract.

One man thought the opposite and spent 17 years figuring how to get it out. George Mitchell, the son of a Greek goat herder, was dismissed by many as a crank. In 1998, however, he was vindicated when his wells started disgorging gas in huge volumes, beginning a revolution that was to upend the energy industry in the US and beyond.

Mitchell, who has died aged 94, cracked the Barnett’s code by using hydraulic fracturing. Dubbing him “the Steve Jobs of the oil industry”, Daniel Yergin, the energy historian, says: “He changed the game in the face of enormous scepticism.”

For decades, his Mitchell Energy & Development had quietly pumped gas from a conventional field in Texas called the Boonesville Bend, which was depleting. In 1981, when he ordered his engineers to explore ways of tapping the Barnett – a deeper, less permeable formation – some of them balked. “He told us: ‘If you’re not capable, tell me, because I’ll find people who will be’,” says Dan Steward, Mitchell Energy’s exploration manager of the time. “He needed to know we were going to work like hell to get that gas.”

The following year the company started fracking in the Barnett. The technique – injecting chemicals, sand and water at high pressure to fragment underground rock and release the resources trapped inside – had been known since the 1940s. But success had never been achieved from unconventional oil or gas deposits before Mitchell came along.

The experiments were costly and the company was running out of money. Mitchell Energy’s board urged their chief to sell the Barnett properties. He refused, encouraging his team to continue tinkering with the process. They curbed the use of expensive gels and sand, and used water slickened with soap to reduce surface tension. The changes worked, and “by 2000, production had taken off like a rocket”, Mr Steward says. A year later, the company was acquired by Devon Energy for $3.5bn and Mitchell was a billionaire.

The Barnett methods were soon being used across the US, powering a surge in production. In 2000, shale gas accounted for just 2 per cent of US natural gas supplies: by 2012, that had risen to 37 per cent.

Mitchell was born in Galveston on May 21 1919. His father, Savvas Paraskevopoulos, had moved to the US and found work on the railroads. But his long surname was a snag. “His paymaster said, ‘I’m not writing you one more pay cheque unless you change your name,’ so he took the paymaster’s – Mike Mitchell,” says Katherine Lorenz, George Mitchell’s granddaughter.

Though he grew up dirt poor, Mitchell was able to attend Texas A&M University to study petroleum engineering and geology. To fund his studies he worked as a waiter and a tailor, and sold fellow students gold-embossed stationery. After the second world war he set up an oil consulting business in Houston with his brother, often attracting investors at a downtown drugstore. They soon established a reputation for finding oil. In 1952, the company bought into acreage north of Fort Worth known as the Wildcatters’ Graveyard: with 13 successful wells, it discovered one of America’s largest gas fields.

Alongside his success, Mitchell had an early interest in sustainability. In 1974 he created a forested housing development north of Houston called The Woodlands, a pioneering sustainable community. “He used to say: ‘If you can’t get the world to work with 6bn people, how will it work with 10bn?’,” says Ms Lorenz. “He was really concerned with how to balance the need for economic development, environmental conservation and social justice.”

At times this put him at odds with the industry he helped to shape. Last August, he wrote in the Washington Post that there were “legitimate concerns” about the impact of fracking on water, air and climate – “concerns that industry has attempted to gloss over”. He risked the wrath of fellow oilmen by calling for better regulation of the process.

In 2011 he joined Warren Buffett’s initiative for billionaires to give away half their wealth. Indulging an interest in astronomy, he helped to fund the search for dark energy and gave $30m to the Giant Magellan Telescope, a ground-based Hubble replacement. Mitchell is survived by a sister, 10 children, 23 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife, Cynthia, died in 2009,

By turning fossil fuel scarcity into plenitude, he made an enduring contribution to global energy security. “There were people all through the company who not only didn’t like what he was doing with shale – they hated it,” says Mr Steward. “But he was a visionary. He really seemed to be able to see far out into the future.”

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© 2012-2017 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.