Subsurface Energy Program FAQs

Q: What was Mr. Mitchell’s role in the development of subsurface energy resources?

A: Halliburton Company pioneered hydraulic fracturing in the 1940s, and the technique has been used to extract oil and gas for decades.

George was an early pioneer of shale gas discovery and production. He and the company he founded, Mitchell Energy & Development Corporation, are credited for making shale development commercially viable using technologies that combined hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling. He was considered an elder statesman in the industry, playing a leadership role in addressing the challenges of shale production.  

David Brooks, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, referred to George as a “business genius” who helped offer the United States a wondrous gift—fighting through waves of skepticism and opposition to extract natural gas from shale. 

Q: Why is the production of natural gas from shale important to a U.S. clean energy economy?

A: Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies enable the production of significant natural gas resources trapped in shale formations. These relatively new resources provide, for the first time, the opportunity to produce enough quantities of natural gas to stabilize prices and supplies for the production of power across the United States and for the restoration of American natural gas-based manufacturing.

By maximizing energy efficiency and renewables and increasing responsibly-produced natural gas for power generation, there is an opportunity to reduce carbon outputs, toxic air emissions, and water use from electricity production. In addition, if community and environmental impact issues of hydraulic fracturing are resolved, and shale gas can be developed to meet electric power and industrial manufacturing needs, gas development has the opportunity to stimulate significant investments and job creation in many regions of the U.S.

Q: Why is the issue of subsurface energy important to the foundation?

A: Because of George's position in the oil and gas industry, environmental community, and science circles, the foundation is able to lend its voice to the ongoing dialogue and debate about shale development. 

As such, an opportunity has emerged to leverage George’s unique ties to the industry and the foundation’s solid relationships with environmental organizations, funders, and leading universities to develop a high-impact, credible, and effective campaign to help figure out effective, sustainable solutions to the challenges of shale development and production while capturing the energy, environment, and economic benefits of the fuel.

Q: Does the foundation support the increased use of natural gas when it has known negative environmental impacts?

A: The foundation is confident that natural gas can be produced and used sustainably, although the following guidelines would need to be met for the foundation to be fully supportive of the production and use of shale gas and hydraulic fracturing:

  1. production of natural gas with 1 percent or less methane leakage;
  2. full integration of renewable resources with gas on the grid; and
  3. mitigation of current negative environmental and social impacts from shale development.

The negative impacts of shale gas and hydraulic fracturing are still being studied and characterized. The foundation’s perspective is that any negative consequences from the use of these technologies can be feasibly and economically managed with well-designed regulations—control technologies already exist to address the most known impacts. The key is to establish appropriate guidelines that require operators to implement rigorous well integrity standards, proactively minimize the risk of water contamination and the use of water for production, capture methane leakage, and reduce air emissions from associated drilling operations.

The use of sustainable natural gas, paired with renewables, is a viable fuel mix that is healthier than coal for electricity production. Once significant impacts from shale gas development are mitigated, the use of natural gas and renewables for electricity production has far fewer air quality impacts and uses significantly less water than coal-fired generation. Overall, with consistent implementation of drilling regulations, natural gas, and renewables provides us with the most economical path forward in cleaner electricity production.

Q: What is the goal of the foundation’s Subsurface Energy Program?

A: The goal of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s Subsurface Energy Program is to support the emerging regulatory, industry, community, and academic efforts to reduce the negative environmental and community impacts of shale development while capturing the energy, environmental, and economic benefits of the fuel. 

Q: Do natural gas and renewable energy compete to provide power to the marketplace?

A: Fortunately, the ability of natural gas power plants to cycle their output up and down to match the variability of wind and solar energy means that utilities can buy wind and solar power without also having to purchase costly backup power.

The foundation asked the Texas Clean Energy Coalition and the Brattle Group to undertake a study of how natural gas and renewables are best integrated in ERCOT. This report showed that the degree to which natural gas and renewables complement each other is a function of market structure, future policies, technological developments, and the price of electricity fuels. Under a scenario that includes high-priced gas, low-cost renewables, and a federal carbon policy, natural gas and renewables would share all but 4 percent of installed generation in ERCOT in 2032.

Q: What are some of the key tactics of the foundation’s Subsurface Energy Program?

A: The foundation’s Subsurface Energy Program will implement a number of solution-driven tactics, including

  1. support efforts to strengthen Texas oil and gas regulations;
  2. conduct a comprehensive examination of risks to groundwater and surface water resources and how to best mitigate these risks; and
  3. develop guidelines to streamline the governance of shale development across levels of government and between the industry and communities.

Q: How will the foundation’s regulatory initiative have impact?

A: The goal of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s regulatory initiative is to design recommendations that incrementally improve Texas’s oil and gas regulations and help ensure that the use of advanced technologies is safe for communities and the environment.

Texas’s thought leadership in the industry can be exported to other major producing states and other countries, resulting in sustainable shale products and production technologies in Texas and throughout the world.

Q: What is unique about the foundation’s Subsurface Energy Program?

A: The foundation utilizes its connections to the industry, the environmental community, and academia to collaboratively address natural gas and hydraulic fracturing challenges. We strategically and pragmatically address gaps in research, advocacy, and regulations to accomplish the goal of determining if shale resources can be produced sustainably.

The foundation approaches these challenges and the process of addressing them without an established agenda of either promoting or halting shale production.

Q: What are some of the unresolved challenges related to natural gas shale development?

A: The unresolved challenges related to natural gas shale development can be divided into two broad categories.  

The first set of questions involves natural gas as a fuel source.  

The questions are related to determining to what extent

  1. methane emissions occur and how these emissions can be minimized; and  
  2. natural gas and renewable resources are integrated in electricity production, and energy efficiency programs continue to expand.

The second set of questions involves the impact of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to develop shale resources and how these impacts are unique to unconventional production technology.

These technologies have a distinct footprint on the environment and communities, but the scale and character of these incremental impacts are not definitively characterized. Impacts may include

  1. surface water and groundwater pollution;
  2. air emissions;
  3. land changes; and
  4. community discontent.

Q: What are the challenges to the increased use and production of natural gas?

A: The primary issues related to natural gas shale production and use that must be addressed include

  1. widespread adoption of cost-effective methods to control methane leakage in natural gas development;
  2. comprehensive characterization and management of water quantity impacts;
  3. objective analysis of water quality impacts and development of new technologies to address them;
  4. investigation and mitigation of air emissions profiles of dense development, leakage points, and related community health impacts;
  5. improvement or development of regulatory schemes appropriate for each shale development region; and
  6. overcoming the economic and technological barriers to integrating energy efficiency, renewable resources, and natural gas to displace coal in power production.

These challenges need to be addressed in ways that support existing community and economic values, strengthen current credible local and regional interests, and make large-scale shale development acceptable.

© 2012-2024 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.