By going his own way, George Mitchell carved out a new world

The shale king.
The shale king.
Image: AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Nick de la Torre
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Billionaire George Mitchell, who died Friday at the age of 94, was a tenacious personality who changed the industries he touched, most famously pioneering a drilling technique that has overturned global economics and geopolitics.

Mitchell has been lionized for developing hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a drilling method that unlocks shale gas and oil. This extraction method has strengthened the US, shaken Russia and created many fortunes—including a $3.2 billion payday for Mitchell.

But his main impact came simply from traveling his own path. In the 1970s, long before “sustainability” became a buzzword, he championed the term and the idea. This drove him to take a lumber mill outside Houston and turn it into The Woodlands, a forested, environmentally designed community in which its 93,000 residents could live, work and stroll. And in an industry that scorns government, Mitchell relied on federal funding to crack open shale, a type of rock that the smart money said was impenetrable.

His stubborn independence came with some profound contradictions. Mitchell worried deeply about overpopulation, but nonetheless had 10 children. And though he publicly embraced renewable energy late in life, he never invested in it. These are but a few examples of what his son Todd called “the Mitchell Paradox.”

The shale drilling breakthrough came in the late 1990s. For years, Mitchell Energy’s gas properties near Fort Worth, Texas, had become less and less productive. So in 1982, with annual grants from the federal government, he ordered his employees to figure out how to drill into the underlying bedrock—the shale in which the gas originated. For 16 years they failed. Then, in 1998, a young engineer suggested substituting a high-pressure injection of water for gunky drilling fluids they had been using, and the result was promising, says Russell Gold, a Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of Frackistan, a book on shale drilling to be published next year.

The outcome was the shale gas boom. In 2001, he sold his company to Devon Energy for $3.2 billion. The resulting gas transformed the US from a gas importer to an exporter. It continues to reduce US oil imports. Among its consequences for global markets are that It forced Russia to cut its natural gas prices in Europe, thus undermining its economy, and it will potentially weaken OPEC.

But environmentalists around the world have screamed about fracking, and pressed for it to be curbed and, in some places, banned.

“This must have pained him because he really cared about the environment,” Gold told Quartz. “But he watched this technological innovation become something that environmentalists hated. That wasn’t really fair.”