HOUSTON — George P. Mitchell leveraged a penchant for hard work, an appetite for risk and dogged persistence in the face of futility into a technological breakthrough that reshaped the global energy industry and made the wildcat oilman a billionaire.
Mitchell, the developer and philanthropist who also is considered the father of fracking, doggedly pursued natural gas he and others knew were trapped in wide, thin layers of rock deep underground. Fracking brought an entirely new — and enormous — trove of oil and gas within reach.
Mitchell died Friday at age 94 his home in Galveston, his family said.
The son of a Greek immigrant who ran a cleaning and shoeshine business in Galveston, Mitchell became one of the wealthiest men in the U.S. While his technological breakthrough transformed economies in states like North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania and is expected to migrate around the world, many environmentalists have attacked the practice over concerns about air and water pollution.
For the entire oil and gas age, drillers had searched for hydrocarbons that had seeped out of layers of sedimentary rock over millions of years and collected into large pools. Once found, they were easy to produce. Engineers merely had to drill into the pools and the natural pressure of the earth would send huge volumes of oil and gas up to the surface.
These pools are exceedingly rare, though, and they were quickly being tapped out as the world’s consumption grew, raising fears that the end of the oil and gas age would soon be at hand and raising prices to alarming levels.
Mitchell’s idea: Go directly to the sedimentary rock holding the oil and gas, essentially speeding up geological processes by thousands of millennia.
He figured out how to drill into and then along layers of gas-laden rock, then force a slurry of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into the rock to crack it open and release the hydrocarbons. This process, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, is the now-common industry practice known generally as fracking.