Mitchell's gamble changed an industry, his philanthropy changed the future

“Whatever you do, make sure you do it for the right reasons.”

That’s the last thing the late George P. Mitchell said to me when last May he was kind enough to grant me an hour-long interview by phone from his offices in The Woodlands.

Last week, at age 94, Mitchell died of natural causes. He leaves behind a legacy of world-changing innovation that started in Wise County. And even more important, a trail of philanthropy with a focus on the future. That innovation started with a hot tip from a bookie.

Mitchell was always meant to work in the oil field.

Before he even started classes at Texas A&M, he worked for a summer as a roustabout, a low-level jack-of-all-trades oil field man. He went on to graduate in 1940 with degrees in petrochemical engineering and geology, finishing first in his class, all while serving as captain of the tennis team. For years he worked with his brother Johnny in the oil field, drilling more than 1,000 wildcat wells. One day he got a call from a longtime friend and Jewish broker named Louis Pulaski about drilling in Wise County in the Boonsville Field. Mitchell called him General Pulaski after a Polish general who fought with the States in the American Revolutionary War

“North Texas was an interesting prospect,” Mitchell said. “General Pulaski called and said he had a tip from a bookie in Chicago. I told him I’d check it out.”

Before long Mitchell and several business partners purchased a 3,000-acre mineral lease on the Hughes Ranch in Wise County.

“We made a well, a very good well,” Mitchell said. “We found some gas, but not much oil. But we didn’t know what we had started.”

Within 90 days they purchased another 300,000 acres for $3 per acre.

“Before long all the gas above the Barnett Shale was played out,” Mitchell said.

But he knew there was much more below the surface, contained within the tight confines of the shale. But until then nobody knew how to get it out. They tried various fracturing techniques. They eventually tried water, and that worked. That’s why it’s called hydraulic fracturing. It opened up the technique of getting natural gas out of shales. Everywhere there are natural gas deposits there are shales, but the technique to get the gas out of the shales wasn’t developed until Mitchell. He was the first to drill into the Barnett. He figured out a way to speed up the geological process by thousands of years.

He proved life is about taking risk, and more importantly, making the most from the hand fate deals you.

In 2002, about 50 years after buying those thousands of acres of leases in western Wise County for $3 each, Mitchell sold his company to Devon for $3.1 billion.

And his hydraulic fracturing technique has changed the world. It’s generated billions in economic stimulus in North Texas alone. The technique has spread across the nation and across the world to China.

“It took years of experimenting,” Mitchell said. “And now it’s caused a revolution in oil and gas.”

But despite his mass accumulation of wealth, landing him on the Forbes list of 500 richest people in the world, he always remained down-to-earth, and was always willing to give back.

Over the years, he spent tens of millions rebuilding his hometown of Galveston, providing money to restore the city’s historic downtown Strand District. He donated land for Texas A&M University at Galveston. He donated another $35 million to TAMU Physics department at College Station resulting in the construction of two new science buildings.

His Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, established 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’s focused tremendously on securing a better, more sustainable future for the generations following him.

Although there are aspects of hydraulic fracturing that cause concern, such as water and air pollution, if done right, it’s a clean technology. It’s lifted and allowed this county, and many others, to prosper. But it won’t last forever. Mitchell had the foresight to invest in the future. We must invest sustainable, renewable energy sources in technology to last beyond the shale boom, and, like Mitchell, create a more secure future for the generations that follow us.

Like the oil and gas pioneer, we must remember to do things for the right reasons.

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