Column: Legendary oilman George Mitchell's foundation keeps his iconoclastic spirit alive

Legendary oilman George Mitchell defied conventional wisdom and revolutionized Texas’s oil and gas industry decades ago with shale drilling. On Thursday, his philanthropic foundation plans another insurgency, transforming oilpatch workers into next-generation energy professionals.

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, led by Executive Vice President Marilu Hastings, will launch a new program to develop the advanced energy industry in the Permian Basin. Hastings, who has deep roots in West Texas and energy, says it will continue the Mitchells’ desire to keep Texas on the cutting edge of energy and sustainability.

“There’s a lot of philanthropy funding climate efforts, funding climate equity, all of the necessary and urgent things that we need to be doing as a society, but are we actually thinking about what that looks like in 20 or 30 years?” Hastings asked me. “What does it mean for communities in an energy-intensive region?”

For almost a decade, I’ve called on the Texas industry to evolve and lead the transition to low-carbon energy. For even longer, Hastings and the Mitchell Foundation have delivered change.

Environmentalists might see the Galveston-born Mitchell as a walking contradiction. As a petroleum engineer who founded Mitchell Energy and developed 10,000 wells, it’s easy to see the pioneer of hydraulic fracturing as a climate change villain.

Like many oil wildcatters, Mitchell loved the outdoors and committed himself to sustainability. He developed The Woodlands, north of Houston, as an environmentally-friendly community of 115,000 people that recently named the best place in the U.S. to buy a house, and second-best place to raise a family.

“A big part of the Mitchell legacy is that drive to pursue the next solution, the next thing that needs to happen, or what is possible, sometimes despite a lot of criticism,” Hastings said. “He had an equal drive to develop next-generation thinking on what we call sustainability, which is the focus of the foundation.”

Two years ago, the foundation launched the Respect Big Bend project, bringing together environmentalists, energy developers, residents and academics to devise strategies to protect West Texas while allowing new fossil fuel and renewable energy projects. Academics brought people together to map out what places needed protecting and which were suitable for energy development.

On Thursday, Hastings will launch the Permian Energy Development Lab, which will help transform the Texas energy workforce as the world demands more energy and lower emissions to slow climate change. The coalition will unite seven colleges and universities, two national laboratories, and regional energy companies in developing workers and business plans that take advantage of the clean energy transition.

Energy and sustainability are not mutually exclusive; our future depends on both.

“The expertise is there, the finance is there, the land is there, the resources are there to make the Permian as relevant in an advanced decarbonized economy as they have been for a hundred years in oil and gas development,” Hastings said. “We just want to pursue that and make them the home for that economy and those advanced energy technologies.”

The energy industry contributes more than half a trillion dollars to the Texas economy each year, according to the Texas Oil and Gas Association. But energy markets boom and bust, wreaking havoc on Texas businesses and workers.

Hastings grew up in Midland, the daughter of a petroleum engineer, who is now a member of the National Petroleum Council. She also worked for Mitchell at the Houston Advanced Research Center, a nonprofit he founded. She understands the oil business and climate change.

“From the Mitchell Foundation’s point of view, we will need oil and gas for decades. We need those operators. We need them to be viable. We need them to do well,” she explained. “We need them to be the most responsible producers that they, their regulators, their competitors, and their customers expect from them.”

Fossil fuel and climate change partisans engaged in hyperbolic arguments over energy may roll their eyes, but she’s not wrong. We need oil and gas for many things beyond fuels. We also know climate does not care whether our jobs, share prices, or economies rely on emitting greenhouse gases. It’s coming, like it or not.

The Permian Energy Development Lab will help Texans in the energy business keep working through the energy transition. Whether from net-zero drilling, hydrogen production, carbon capture or even small nuclear reactors, Texas stands to profit if we make the right decisions now.

People who care about the climate should care about what happens to Texas energy workers because recognizing the reality of climate change is easier when it doesn’t mean financial ruin. Fighting it might even become popular if it means pride and good jobs.

Chris Tomlinson, named 2021 columnist of the year by the Texas Managing Editors, writes commentary about money, politics, and life in Texas. Sign up for his “Tomlinson’s Take” newsletter at


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