Oil giant, philanthropist George P. Mitchell dead at 94

George Mitchell, Texas oil man, real estate developer, and one of Houston's wealthiest businessmen, died Friday at his home in Galveston, according to a family statement released by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. He was 94.

The son of a poor Greek immigrant, Mitchell had an uncanny knack for finding oil.

During his career, he participated in drilling some 8,000 wells, including more than 1,000 wildcats.

He was a pioneer in the technology of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, using it to tap oil and gas in the Barnett Shale of North Texas in the 1980s and 1990s. The process launched a revolution in U.S. energy, and prompted international environmental debate.

Mitchell Energy & Development, the company he built and later sold for $3.1 billion, was responsible for more than 200 oil and 350 natural gas discoveries.

While Mitchell's long and colorful career made him a billionaire, friends and colleagues said he always stayed grounded.

The oil billionaire and creator of The Woodlands was often seen casually strolling through the downtown tunnels at lunchtime.

He was also known to meet friends at a Galveston grocery store for coffee and conversation in the deli.

Though he lived primarily in The Woodlands, the master-planned community he created in the 1970s, Mitchell spent much of his time on his hometown island. 

Mitchell was born in Galveston on May 21, 1919.

After graduating from Ball High School, he left for Texas A&M University where he studied petroleum engineering and geology.

He was No. 1 in his class at A&M, then Texas Agriculture and Mechanical College of Texas, and captain of the tennis team.

To help pay for his schooling, Mitchell started a small laundry business, and he sold candy and stationery to fellow students. 

He graduated in 1940 with a degree in petroleum engineering with a specialty in geology.

He married Cynthia Woods a few years later and the pair had 10 children.

Hydraulic fracturing

Following a stint as a captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, he started his professional career as an independent oil and gas consultant.

A few years later, Mitchell - along with his brother Johnny and Houston wildcatter Merlyn Christie - established Oil Drilling Inc., the predecessor to Mitchell Energy & Development.

His biggest contribution to the energy business almost certainly was his work on hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting sand, water and other substances into formations to release oil and gas locked in tight rock or shale.

According to a biography on the website of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, Mitchell and his colleagues began testing the process in the early 1980s in North Texas.

"Against the prevailing sentiments both within and outside the company, George persisted through 17 years of failures and incremental successes," the biography says. "Finally, as he approached his 80th birthday, gas from these experimental wells began to flow in hugely profitable volumes." 

Fracturing has since driven a boom in oil and gas production credited with dramatically improving U.S. energy security.

Woodlands visionary

Mitchell's career as an oil man was only a fraction of his accomplishments, which included revitalizing Galveston's historic Strand District and developing The Woodlands, which he sold in 1997.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Mr. Mitchell," Tim Welbes and Alex Sutton, co-presidents of The Woodlands Development Co., said in a statement. "He will be forever remembered as a true visionary and philanthropist who helped shape the State of Texas and the world with his innovative ideas on energy, community development, science and technology."

Friend and colleague Roger Galatas called Mitchell "a very strong leader of his company and of The Woodlands."

Mitchell hired Galatas in 1974 to help master plan The Woodlands, which is only one of 13 new towns in the country that's still around.

New towns were mixed-use communities constructed in undeveloped areas. They received financial assistance from the federal government. 

In the mid-1990s, Mitchell began selling off most of his real estate.

A partnership between Crescent Real Estate Equities and Morgan Stanley purchased the development for $543 million.

Galveston Mardis Gras

Throughout the years, Mitchell also spent a huge amount of time and resources on his native Galveston.

He has put more $50 million of his own money into renovating more than a dozen crumbling landmarks there, including the Hotel Galvez and the 1879 Leon H. Blum Building, which is now the Tremont House, a luxury hotel and Mitchell's residence. 

Mitchell also brought the Mardi Gras celebration back to Galveston Island. The once-grand event had withered during World War II.

Still, the oil man wanted to be remembered most for developing The Woodlands, a 27,000-acre master planned community 27 miles north of Houston in Montgomery County.

"Building the company was important to me, but The Woodlands is the most dramatic evidence of what I've accomplished," Mitchell was quoted as saying in a 2001 Houston Chronicle article.

Forbes magazine this year listed Mitchell's wealth at $2 billion.

Later in life, Mitchell began using his accumulated wealth and power to help the advancement of science as it relates to the environment.

He was instrumental in founding - and funding - the Houston Advanced Research Center, a non-profit scientific and engineering research consortium based in The Woodlands Research Forest.

And he received high marks from environmentalists by expanding the wintering grounds of whooping cranes in Rockport.

He's also donated millions to his alma mater for the study of theoretical physics and to the University of Houston - most recently for a new cultural education center called the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

Mitchell's wife, Cynthia Woods Mitchell, died in 2009.

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