George P. Mitchell: A Visionary Life

Every great American industry has had visionary leaders as a part of its history.  Electricity had Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.  Railroads had William Henry Vanderbilt.  The auto industry had Henry Ford.  Steel had Andrew Carnegie.  On and on it goes.

The American oil and natural gas industry has had more than its share of visionaries during its 160-year history, with names like Rockefeller and Hunt and Cullen and Pickens echoing down through the years.  To that list we must now add the name of George Phydias Mitchell, who passed away on July 26 at the age of 94.

Mr. Mitchell will forever be remembered as “the Father of Shale”, and for good reason.  He spent more than 20 years of his life, risking tens of millions of dollars, trying to find the key to unlocking the natural gas and oil that he and many others knew were contained in the very dense shale formations thousands of feet below the earth’s surface.  When he finally succeeded in the Barnett Shale in the mid-1990s, he started an industry revolution that has transformed the global supply picture for oil and natural gas, and will enhance the energy security of North America for decades to come.

The statement from the Mitchell Family posted on the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation website states “His story was quintessentially American.”  An understatement – it’s like something out of a movie.  A child of Greek immigrants, he was not a man who inherited wealth.  He worked his way through Texas A&M University, where he was captain of the tennis team (a lifelong passion) and graduated first in his class with a degree in petroleum engineering.  Consistent with the pattern of his entire life of generosity and philanthropy, Mr. Mitchell would ultimately become the largest benefactor of his alma mater.

He served his country in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, and then went into the oil business after the war ended.  The rest is history, and his impacts on the industry he loved have been well-documented in many other places.

Mr. Mitchell, in his later years, became an advocate for tighter regulation and safer practices around hydraulic fracturing, reasoning that the industry must maintain the public trust that the technology is being safely deployed in order to maintain its license to operate.  To this end, he penned a series of Op/Eds in major publications, and his foundation funded a variety of studies and collaborative efforts among multiple stakeholders.  Responding to his vision and leadership, other industry leaders have engaged in similar efforts.

His consistent, extraordinary vision manifested itself in many other areas of his life.  Where others only saw a near-impenetrable pine tree forest 30 miles north of downtown Houston, Mr. Mitchell saw a master-planned community with conference centers, office buildings, hotels, shopping, schools and high-end golf courses.  In 1974 he dedicated the land that would become The Woodlands, today home to 100,000 people and the headquarters to Anadarko Petroleum. The area is so inviting as a place to live and do business that ExxonMobil is currently constructing a campus complex just to the south that will house more than 10,000 of its own employees.

Mr. Mitchell was also a great booster for his hometown of Galveston, investing in and renovating grand hotels like the Tremont House and the Galvez, and working with civic leaders to rebuild the Strand and revitalize the city’s Mardi Gras celebration, which is now the second largest in the United States each year.   

Through his legion of philanthropic efforts, Mr. Mitchell has donated hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to help the less fortunate and create a more sustainable planet.  Late in his life he signed The Giving Pledge, a campaign that encourages billionaires to commit to giving most of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

Mr. Mitchell was truly an extraordinary man who possessed extraordinary vision and generosity of spirit, a loving father who was devoted to and cherished by his family.  His family’s statement concludes with “There is no doubt that he helped make the world a better place.”

No doubt about that at all, in so many ways. George P. Mitchell, Rest In Peace.

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