HOUSTON (AP) — 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.
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, according to the International Energy Agency.
Daniel Yergin, the energy historian and author of "The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World" said in a statement that Mitchell "Changed the world energy outlook in the 21st century and set in motion the global rebalancing of oil and gas that is now occurring."
The fracking boom sent natural gas prices plummeting, reducing energy costs for U.S. consumers and businesses. And by boosting U.S. oil production, it has sharply reduced oil imports.
Electric utilities used more natural gas to generate power because of its low price, while reducing the use of coal. This has led to a substantial reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and toxic chemicals such as mercury by U.S. utilities.
But the practice has also sparked powerful antagonism, especially in the Northeast, from residents and environmentalists opposed to increased industrial activity in rural areas and concerned that the fracking process or the wastewater it generates can contaminate drinking water supplies.
New York, which is thought to have considerable natural gas resources, has imposed a moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing and star-studded activist groups have staged countless rallies and events to generate opposition to the practice.
In some areas fracking has been blamed for air pollution and gas leaks that have ruined well water, but the Obama administration and many state regulators say the practice is safe when done properly.
Mitchell's family, on the family foundation website, said he died of natural causes while surrounded by relatives.
"His story was quintessentially American," the family statement said. "George P. Mitchell was raised as a child of meager means who, throughout his life, believed in giving back to the community that made his success possible and lending a hand to the less fortunate struggling to reach their potential."
George Phydias Mitchell and his wife, Cynthia, who died in 2009, had 10 children. Their work together was "dedicated to making the world a more hospitable and sustainable place," the family said.
Mitchell graduated first in his class of 1940 at Texas A&M University with degrees in petrochemical engineering and geology. He helped pay for his school costs by running a tailoring and laundry business in College Station and selling candy and stationery to his fellow student Aggies, then in later years became the school's largest benefactor with donations topping $95 million.
This year, the annual Forbes list of wealthiest Americans ranked him 239th with a net worth of $2 billion.
Mitchell spent four years in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Afterward, he struck out on his own with a brother and a partner as a wildcatter operation.
Over his career, he participated in drilling some 10,000 wells, including more than 1,000 wildcats — wells drilled away from known fields. His company, Mitchell Energy & Development, was credited with more than 200 oil and 350 natural gas discoveries.
The firm spent nearly two decades developing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, finally finding success in North Texas' Barnett Shale formation in the 1990s.
"There's no point in mincing words. Some people thought it was stupid," Dan Steward, a geologist who began working with the Texas natural gas firm Mitchell Energy in 1981 told The Associated Press in an interview last year. Steward estimated in the early years, "probably 90 percent of the people" in the firm didn't believe shale gas would be profitable, and that Mitchell's company didn't even cover the cost of fracking on shale tests until the 36th well was drilled.
But he credited the company namesake as a tenacious visionary.
"There's not a lot of companies that would stay with something this long," he said. "Most companies would have given up."
"Because of Mitchell's persistence ... we are today witnessing an unprecedented boom in domestic energy production and the associated economic benefits in Texas and nationwide," Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman agreed Friday.
Mitchell sold his energy company in 2002 for $3.1 billion.
Over the years, he spent tens of millions rebuilding his hometown of Galveston, resurrecting a long-dormant annual Mardi Gras celebration and providing money to restore the city's historic downtown Strand District.
He donated the land for Texas A&M University at Galveston.
"To say he was a great man with foresight and generosity isn't enough," Adm. Robert Smith III, the school's president, said. "His contributions to this university literally made this institution possible."
His Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, founded in 1979, has made more than $400 million in gifts.
In the early 1970s, Mitchell began developing The Woodlands, a suburban Houston master-planned community designed as a place for mixed-income residential development with jobs and amenities nearby while preserving the East Texas forest and other natural resources that covered the 27,000 acres. He later would call it his most satisfying achievement.
The Woodlands is now home to about 100,000 people, and one of the nation's busiest outdoor performing arts and entertainment venues there carries his wife's name, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
"His ambition and success have transformed our region," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said. "He was a visionary, and showed his love for Houston through his work and hometown pride."
Funeral arrangements were not immediately released.
Fahey reported from New York. Associated Press writer Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation http://cgmf.org/p/family-statement.html