Few businesspeople have done as much to change the world as George Mitchell

THE United States has of late been in a slough of despond. The mood is reflected in a spate of books with gloomy titles such as “That Used to Be Us” (Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum) and “Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent” (Edward Luce). For the first time in decades the majority of Americans think their children will be worse off than they are. Yankee can-do optimism is in danger of congealing into European nothing-can-be-done negativism.

There are good reasons for this. The political system really is “even worse than it looks”, as another doom-laden book puts it. Middle-class living standards have stagnated. The Iraq war turned into a debacle. But the pessimists are ignoring a mighty force pushing in the opposite direction: America’s extraordinary capacity to reinvent itself. No other country produces as many world-changing new companies in such a variety of industries: not just in the new economy of computers and the internet but also in the old economy of shopping, manufacturing and energy.

George Mitchell, who died on July 26th, was a one-man refutation of the declinist hypothesis. From the 1970s America’s energy industry reconciled itself to apparently inevitable decline. Analysts produced charts to show that its oil and gas were running out. The big oil firms globalised in order to survive. But Mr Mitchell was convinced that immense reserves trapped in shale rock deep beneath the surface could be freed. He spent decades perfecting techniques for unlocking them: injecting high-pressure fluids into the ground to fracture the rock and create pathways for the trapped oil and gas (fracking) and drilling down and then sideways to increase each well’s yield (horizontal drilling).

The result was a revolution. In an interview with The Economist last year Mr Mitchell said he never had any doubt that fracking might turn the American energy market upside down. But even he was surprised by the speed of the change. Shale beds now produce more than a quarter of America’s natural gas, compared with just 1% in 2000. America is on the way to becoming a net gas exporter. Traditional petro-powers such as Saudi Arabia and Russia are losing bargaining strength.

Mr Mitchell was the embodiment of the American dream. His father was a poor Greek immigrant, a goatherd who later ran a shoeshine shop in Galveston, Texas. Mr Mitchell had to work his way through university, but graduated top of his class. He left a fortune of more than $2 billion and a Texas landscape studded with examples of his philanthropy: he was particularly generous to university research departments and to Galveston.

Mr Mitchell was also the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit. He did not discover shale gas and oil: geological surveys had revealed them decades before he started. He did not even invent fracking: it had been in use since the 1940s. But few great entrepreneurs invent something entirely new. His greatness lay in a combination of vision and grit: he was convinced that technology could unlock the vast reserves of energy in the Barnett Shale beneath Dallas and Fort Worth, and he kept grappling with the unforgiving rock until it eventually surrendered its riches.

After studying petroleum engineering and geology Mr Mitchell served in the Army Corps of Engineers during the second world war. On returning to civvy street he displayed a mistrust of big organisations—he made a career with Texas’s scrappy independents rather than with the local giants—and a gambler’s cunning. In his early days he struck a deal with a Chicago bookmaker to buy rights to a piece of land known as “the wildcatter’s graveyard”, and quickly drilled 13 gushers.

His stubbornness was, though, his most important quality. Investors and friends scoffed, but he spent two decades poking holes in the land around Fort Worth. “I never considered giving up,” he said, “even when everyone was saying, ‘George, you’re wasting your money’.” Then, in 1998, with Mr Mitchell approaching his 80s, his team hit on the idea of substituting water for gunky drilling fluids. This drastically cut the cost of drilling and turned the Barnett Shale into a gold mine.

An unlikely environmental warrior

Yet Mr Mitchell’s story is more complicated than just a fable of hard work rewarded and a vision vindicated. It also shows how governments can help along the entrepreneurial spirit. His company counted on support from various government agencies, including those that mapped the shale reserves (demonstrating that they were plentiful) and promoted the development of technologies such as diamond-studded drill bits. Jimmy Carter’s 1980 law to tax “windfall profits” at oil firms also included a tax credit for drilling for unconventional natural gas.

Greens now protesting against fracking, in Britain and elsewhere, may be surprised to learn that Mr Mitchell was also an early believer in environmentally friendly growth. In 1974 he built a planned community, The Woodlands, in the pine forests north of Houston, in a bid to tackle the problems of urban sprawl. It contains a mix of social housing and offices as well as million-dollar villas. In his later years he also campaigned for tight government regulation of fracking: he worried that the wild men who ran the independents might discredit his technique by cutting corners and damaging the environment.

Mr Mitchell’s son, Todd, talked of “the Mitchell paradox”: he believed in population control but had ten children; he championed sustainability but never invested in renewable energy. Reconciling the tension between Mr Mitchell’s twin passions—fracking and sustainability—will be one of the great problems of the coming decades. But one thing is certain: the revolution he started by poking holes in the Texas dirt is changing the world just as surely as the algorithms being generated in Silicon Valley.

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