In Memoriam - George P. Mitchell

GEORGE P. MITCHELL, SPE, a pioneer in developing methods to produce shale gas economically, died 26 July in Galveston, Texas. He was 94.

Mitchell earned a BS in petroleum engineering with an emphasis in geology from Texas A&M University. After graduation, he worked for a few years at Amoco before serving as a captain in the US Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Afterward, he joined a wildcatting company. He later bought out his partners, and the company evolved into Mitchell Energy and Development, which became one of the nation’s largest independent oil and gas companies. In 2002, it merged with Devon Energy.

Mitchell is best known for his involvement in combining hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the Barnett Shale development that led to the current shale gas revolution.

“Big oil companies knew the upside potential of shale gas, and many were working to economically extract the gas from the shale without much success,” Mitchell said in an interview with The Economist magazine. “Many people were trying to make hydraulic fracturing work better, but they were not able to get the cells to give up the gas. We knew there was gas in some of these shale fields. We would measure the volume of gas in the reservoir and it was very high methane (25-40% methane). You could get to the methane, but you could not get it to leave the cells until you fractured it, and that was the major breakthrough.

“We invested approximately USD 6 million over a 10-year period in the 1980s and 1990s to make fracturing an economically viable process. I never considered giving up, even when everyone was saying, ‘George, you’re wasting your money.’”

As a result of his contributions to the oil and gas industry, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gas Technology Institute.

“George Mitchell, more than anyone else, is responsible for the most important energy innovation of the 21st century,” said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of consulting firm IHS and a Pulitzer Prize winning author on energy. “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.”

Mitchell also led real estate and community development projects. In 1974, his company developed The Woodlands, a 27,000-acre forested, master-planned community north of Houston. He also founded the Houston Advanced Research Center, a collaboration among eight universities and research groups dedicated to sustainable development.

Mitchell’s wife, Cynthia, died in 2009. He is survived by three daughters, seven sons, a sister, 23 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.