George P. Mitchell, Fracking Pioneer, Has Died

George P. Mitchell, the billionaire wildcatter behind Governor Rick Perry's "Texas Miracle," died this morning at the age of 94. His legacy, you could say, is an unconventional oil and gas revolution that utterly upended the energy calculus in this country. Where we once built liquefied natural gas import terminals, a huge surplus has prompted companies like Cheniere Energy to retrofit the Sabine Pass facility in Louisiana for export. For the first time in more than a decade, the U.S. produced more oil than it imported.

And it all began in the 1950s, somewhere north of Fort Worth, an uneconomic burial ground for independent wildcatters like Mitchell. The gas was there, but the trouble was unlocking the pores and interstices trapping it. He took a gamble on a brand-new technology called hydraulic fracturing. For several decades, he kicked around the Boonsville Bend gas field and, in the process, became very wealthy. But there was a huge layer of shale rock he occasionally drilled through known as the Barnett.

His geologists detected natural gas, but the shale was impermeable. It was widely believed that it could not be fracked. Mitchell thought otherwise. Or, perhaps, he needed to believe it. His gas reserves were running low, and he was still on the hook and under contract to feed a pipeline serving Chicago. He had a hunch that the sprawling Barnett Shale could be transformed into a bonanza if only he could figure out the secret to cracking that dense rock.

He experimented with various gels and liquids in his frac mixtures. He threw millions at failed wells, even as he was running out of cash. Until, finally, he hit upon the combination -- higher horsepower engines to crack the shale, and chemically slickened water and light sand to prop the fractures open.

In 2002, Mitchell Energy merged with Devon Energy. Not only did Mitchell now have all the cash he needed to perfect his technique, he had Devon's horizontal drilling expertise. The marriage of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling exposed more of the shale to frack stimulation, releasing ever greater volumes of gas.

As gas prices began to spike in 2005, this method moved beyond the Barnett Shale, eventually to Pennsylvania, North Dakota, New York and elsewhere. It's being used in the Eagle Ford shale to extract oil and in the Permian Basin, where wells once thought to be dry have been revived. Whether you believe these developments are good or bad, you have to hand it to that hardheaded Mitchell -- he might just be one of the most influential men of our time.

If you want to learn more about the guy, I suggest The Quest by Daniel Yergin.

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