Dot Earth: Daniel Yergin on George Mitchell's Energy Innovations and Concerns

On a hunch, George Mitchell began drilling shale rock formations in the Texas dirt fields where he had long pumped oil and gas.

As news spread over the weekend of the death of George P. Mitchell, the 94-year-old Texas oil man widely credited with playing a pivotal role in unlocking the shale energy era, I reached out for a reaction from Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer-winning chronicler of humanity’s fossil fuel era.

Read below for Yergin’s “Your Dot” contribution, which includes a link to an excerpt on Mitchell and fracking from his superb book, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World.”

But first click over to the fine obituary by my colleague Doug Martin and explore a timeline of Mitchell’s accomplishments posted by his family foundation. Loren Steffy has posted a fascinating deeper dive on Mitchell at Forbes that I also recommend.

Whatever your view of the risks and rewards offered by this method of liberating fuels from “tight” rock (the full range can be heard here), Mitchell’s life is one worth studying — including his stated concerns about the need for strict regulation of this process.

Here’s Yergin’s piece:

George Mitchell was the son of a Greek goat herder.  He started out after World War II with nothing except his brains and determination and a one-room office atop a Houston drugstore.  But before Mitchell was done, he launched what has proved to be the most important innovation in energy so far this century.  For Mitchell, who passed away at age 94, broke the code on shale gas and launched the unconventional revolution in oil and gas.  In so doing, he changed America’s energy position, making it possible to actually talk about United States “energy independence.”  As such, he has changed the world energy outlook in the twenty-first century and set in motion the global rebalancing of oil and gas that is now occurring.

In Chapter 16 of “The Quest,” I describe how this all came about.  In the early 1980s, Mitchell read a scholarly article saying that it might be possible to extract commercial gas from shale rock. Until then, people didn’t talk about “shale gas”; if it had any name, it was “uneconomic gas.”  The breakthrough did not come easily.  It took a decade and a half of conviction, investment, and dogged determination.  In the face of great skepticism, Mitchell refused to accept no as an answer.  The head of his development team told me that Mitchell “wanted us to figure a way” to get the gas out of a formation called the Barnett Shale. “If we couldn’t, then he would hire other people who could.”

The breakthrough on hydraulic fracturing came in the late 1990s.  In 2003, Devon Energy, which had acquired Mitchell’s company, yoked it to another technology, horizontal drilling, but it still took another half decade before it all really took off. The impact is now clear – both in terms of energy and environment.  United States natural gas production is up a third over the last decade. The country’s carbon dioxide emissions are back to the levels of the early 1990s, in large measure because moderately-priced natural gas has been taking market share away from coal in electric generation.  That is a direct result of the breakthrough on shale gas.

In my observation, Mitchell was a modest man. Although he had great success in business, I recall running into him sitting in coach on flights from Washington to Houston.  But he was certainly a man of strong views. And he was very committed to natural gas. He would call me up sometimes to criticize me for saying something he disagreed with, although I recall being hard pressed to know what exactly what had irked him so!

He was very committed to environmental values. He created The Woodlands, a 43-square-mile planned community north of Houston, and restored historic Galveston.  The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation has given away more than $400 million, much of it to support water and other sustainability initiatives and scientific research.  Just a few months ago, his foundation teamed up with that of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to support “best practices” regulation of shale gas production.

In 2011, we gave Mitchell the first lifetime achievement award at our annual IHS CERAWeek conference.  Afterwards, he wrote me, “My energy career spanned more than six decades, so I deeply appreciated being recognized as an innovator…and pioneer of shale gas.”  A few months ago, I joined with others — including former Senator George Mitchell (no relation!), physicist Stephen Hawking and the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone — to nominate him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  In my letter, I wrote, “Were it not for George’s determination, we would be on course to spending $100 billion a year to import liquefied natural gas – and our oil imports would be going up and up. It is because of George that we can talk seriously about energy independence.”

Whether we achieve energy independence or get close to it is a matter of debate. But it is clear that one man’s determination – in this case George Mitchell’s – can have a very great impact and, in the process, overturn established opinion.  And, in his case, it has, with all the debates, changed the way our nation thinks about energy.

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