Remembering George Mitchell and his paradox

I was traveling last week when I received the news that oil pioneer George Mitchell had died.

On the long drive through New Mexico to the Albuquerque airport, I found myself thinking about the last time I visited Mitchell at his office in downtown Houston. He gave me a book that most of you have probably never heard of or read: The Barnett Shale Play: The Phoenix of the Fort Worth Basin. A History. It is, of course, the story of how the company he founded, Mitchell Energy and Development Co., developed the techniques for hydraulic fracturing.

The book was self-published by the Fort Worth and North Texas geological societies in early 2007.  It’s no billionaire’s self-congratulatory biography. Thick with geological jargon, charts and maps, it’s not intended for a general audience. It’s a “how we did it” story for rock geeks. Other than commissioning the book, Mitchell himself had little involvement. It was written by Dan Steward, the geologist for Mitchell Energy who led the company’s fracking development. 

Mitchell was clearly proud of the book and the accomplishments it chronicled, yet he was happy to serve merely as its promoter. Because of his humility, he never felt compelled to engage in the ghost-written biographies in which so many billionaires indulge. If only more of them showed Mitchell’s restraint. Slog through Sandy Weill’s 500-page testament to self-love if you need an example of what I’m talking about.

Yet Mitchell, more than most of his fellow business leaders, deserves greater examination. In the final decades of the 20th century, the larger-than-life personalities of the energy business had largely faded.

Mitchell was the antithesis of the swaggering, gunslinging wildcatter, but his impact as a 21st century energy pioneer can’t be overstated. He had the wildcatter’s thirst for risk, combined with a stubborn determination to see his hunch through long after most of the industry’s freewheeling gamblers would have given up.

Mitchell’s company embarked on its fracking experiment in the early 1980s on land near Fort Worth. It would be almost two decades before the company’s techniques unleashed natural gas from the Barnett Shale formation in commercial quantities.

Mitchell’s persistence has profound repercussions for America’s energy future, as IHS Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin noted in an emailed statement:

"He is responsible for what is the most important innovation in world energy so far this century. Before his breakthrough, shale gas had another name – 'uneconomic' gas. It was thought that there was no way to commercially extract it. He proved that it could be done."

His breakthrough in hydraulic fracturing, when combined with horizontal drilling, set off the revolution in unconventional oil and gas that we see today.

But it did not come easily. It took a decade and a half of conviction, investment and dogged determination. In the face of great skepticism and refusing to accept “no” as an answer, Mitchell dramatically changed America’s energy position. As such, he also changed the world energy outlook in the 21st century and set in motion the global rebalancing of oil and gas that is now occurring.

In Houston, Mitchell is known as much for his philanthropy and community-building as he is for his energy achievements. In the early 1970s, he pioneered The Woodlands, a master-planned community north of Houston where I live. Those who’ve lived here for more than 15 years — the town’s “old timers” if you will — often invoke Mitchell’s vision.

After my wife had some minor surgery, her doctor instructed me on where to pull my car to pick her up. The instructions included a discussion of the hospitals architecture and how George Mitchell’s vision was that the entrance should be turned away from the freeway so that patients would have better ease of access.

In The Woodlands, apartments with government subsidized housing co-exist with million dollar homes just a short walk away. Tree-lined paths snake through residential areas where preserving trees and greener are mandated in deed restrictions.

In recent years, Mitchell sold his company to Devon Energy for $3.5 billion, and had begun selling his real estate holdings, including The Woodlands, beginning in the mid-1990s. In his later years, he focused on philanthropy, giving to scientific and environmental causes, as well as his alma mater, Texas A&M University, and the University of Houston.

In 2011, he joined the Giving Pledge, Warren Buffett’s effort to get the ultra-rich to give their wealth to philanthropic causes.

Mitchell never saw any irony in his dual role as the father figure of both fracking and sustainable development. He often criticized the environmental movement for not going far enough, for stopping short of supporting sustainable development. At the same time, his company, Mitchell Energy, was not a “green” business. While he followed environmental regulations, and in some cases took initiatives to set aside some of his company’s oil and gas leases to protect endangered species, Mitchell Energy didn’t reflect his own beliefs on sustainability.

As Jurgen Schmandt explains in his book George P. Mitchell and the Idea of Sustainability:

"Mitchell’s engagement with sustainability was sometimes as contradictory as it was committed. He was concerned about overpopulation but had ten children. He believed in clean energy but with a businessman’s point of view. He promoted natural spaces but with a developer’s mindset." 

It’s with fracking, though, that the Mitchell Paradox finds unity. By unleashing the huge domestic resource of shale gas, Mitchell provided a path to reducing the growth of carbon emissions while enhancing the country’s energy security. As Schmandt puts it, Mitchell “transformed the energy business by making natural gas available as a relatively clean bridge fuel on the way to a sustainable, noncarbon energy future.”

Mitchell understood the importance that continued energy development played in our country’s future, yet he also recognized the tremendous responsibility we have to protect the environment as the human population grows.

Unfortunately, environmentalists and the energy industry have retreated to the same old battle lines over fracking. In doing so, they have missed an opportunity to bridge past differences. Fracking offers a greener alternative, one that benefits society, the environment and the oil business. Mitchell’s legacy is creating that bridge. 

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