HOUSTON - Billionaire Texas oilman, developer and philanthropist George P. Mitchell, considered the father of fracking, died Friday at his home in Galveston, his family said.
He was 94.
Mitchell, the son of a Greek immigrant who ran a dry cleaning business in Galveston, became one of the wealthiest men in the U.S. His dogged pursuit of natural gas he and others knew were trapped in wide, thin layers of rock deep underground brought an entirely new - and enormous - trove of oil and gas within reach.
George Mitchell, the Texas oilman, real estate developer and the “father of fracking,” died Friday at his home in Galveston, a spokeswoman said.
His technological breakthrough led to a revolution in oil and gas production in the U.S., and one that is expected to migrate around the world. The advancement also transformed economies in states like North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania.
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 now-common industry practice known 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 consumers and businesses. And by boosting U.S. oil production it has sharply reduced oil imports.
It has led to a dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and emissions of toxic chemicals such as mercury by replacing coal in electricity generation.
At the same time, some environmentalists worry the fracking process or the disposal of fracking wastewater can leak into drinking water supplies and contaminate them.
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.
"He will be fondly remembered for flying in the face of convention - focusing on what could be, with boundless determination - many times fighting through waves of skepticism and opposition to achieve his vision."
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," their family said.
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 said 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."