More than any single person, Texas oil man and petrochemical engineer George P. Mitchell gets credit for developing the drilling technology known as hydraulic fracturing that created a shale oil and gas revolution in the US, and which has dramatically transformed the global energy landscape in America’s favor. The significance of the shale energy boom that has resulted from Mitchell’s revolutionary drilling technologies is illustrated in the chart above that shows the annual US production of crude oil and natural gas (data here, production for 2013 is estimated). As advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling starting unlocking oceans of shale gas and oil in America in about 2006, the domestic production of oil and gas surged by more than 30% between 2005 and 2012 and completely reversed a three-decade decline in US oil and gas output. More oil and gas was produced in the US last year (41,600,000 billion BTUs) than in any year since 1974, 38 years ago. Further production gains this year will likely bring domestic production of US gas and oil close to the record highs set back in the early 1970s.
Various news agencies are reporting today that oil man, fracking pioneer, and “super-petropreneur” George Mitchell has died at age 94.
George P. Mitchell, the Texas billionaire who pioneered shale-drilling techniques that triggered a renaissance in North American oil and natural gas production, has died. He was 94. Mitchell’s innovative use of horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing in the 1990s to release gas from a previously-impermeable rock formation near Fort Worth, Texas, earned him the nickname the “father of the Barnett Shale.” Those drilling breakthroughs revolutionized oil and gas exploration from Pennsylvania to Poland and the Yukon Territory to Argentina.
“My engineers kept telling me, ‘You are wasting your money, Mitchell.’ And I said, Well damn it, let’s figure this thing out, because there is no question there is a tremendous source bed that’s about 250 feet thick.”
As other companies adopted Mitchell’s techniques, U.S. gas production rose 25% in the past decade, pushing prices to a 10-year low in April 2012. The nation now has an estimated 890 trillion cubic feet equivalent of recoverable natural gas, enough fuel for almost 40 years at current consumption rates. As the same methods were applied to oil fields, crude production has more than quadrupled in places such as the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana in the past three years.
Mitchell had the “guts” to do certain things that other people would be too scared to do, said Michael Richmond, who worked for Mitchell for 25 years, eventually retiring as chief executive officer of the real-estate company that developed The Woodlands.
“George didn’t like to hear the answer, ‘No,’” Richmond said. “He always wanted to hear the answer, ‘How.’ You had to figure out solutions to any issue that was on the table.”
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.
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.
Engineers after Mitchell learned to adapt the process to oil-bearing rock. The U.S. is now the world’s largest producer of natural gas and is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer by the end of the decade.
MP: ‘Super-petropreneur’ George Mitchell’s life and legacy demonstrates how one person with vision, guts, Yankee ingenuity, determination, entrepreneurship, and hard work can change an industry and change the world. R.I.P. George Mitchell, a true American hero.