George P. Mitchell, who pioneered the hydraulic fracking technique that made Wise County the epicenter of the Barnett Shale gas field, died Tuesday at the age of 94.
Mitchell, a billionaire oilman, real estate developer and philanthropist, died in Galveston at the Tremont House Hotel he bought and restored.
But he got his start in Wise County.
Sheriff David Walker, whose father worked for Mitchell for more than 38 years, said the oilman “loved his employees like family.”
“When my dad was in the hospital, not expected to make it, my cell phone rang from a Houston telephone number,” he said. “I talked to a gentleman who asked how my sisters and I were as well as my Mom. He then wanted to see how my Dad was doing. I had no clue who I was talking to, so I asked. It was Mr. Mitchell. My dad, not being able to speak, listened as Mr. Mitchell thanked him for his work with MND Drilling. He was basically checking on Dad as a friend. It was a very nice call.”
Walker said Mitchell gave a lot of people – in Wise County and around the world – a start and a career, but never lost the personal touch.
“I remember as a young boy bird hunting with Mr. Mitchell south of Bridgeport and him wanting to shoot my .410 shotgun that I was probably too small to be shooting,” he said. “Not only did he own a huge successful company, he was a family man.”
Mitchell was born May 21, 1919, in Galveston and graduated from Ball High School. He studied petroleum engineering and geology at Texas A&M University and graduated at the top of his class in 1940.
He married Cynthia Woods a few years later and they had 10 children. She preceded him in death in 2009.
After serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, he started his professional career as an independent oil and gas consultant. A few years later, with his brother Johnny and Houston wildcatter Merlyn Christie, he established Mitchell Mitchell and Christie Oil Drilling Inc., the predecessor to Mitchell Energy & Development.
They roamed Wise County picking up leases from landowners eager to cash in on the dream of oil riches. Their first wells were in a formation called the Boonsville-Bend Conglomerate in south and west Wise County – and they were moderately successful. Later on, Mitchell Energy Corp. discovered a much-deeper source of natural gas called the Barnett Shale.
Mitchell believed in the potential of the shale, but it was difficult to unlock. He spent years developing a fracturing technique to crack the rock and free up the natural gas.
Mitchell drilled his first Barnett Shale well in 1981 and his first horizontal well in 1997.
The formation became one of the most prolific natural gas fields in the country. In 2002 Mitchell sold his company to Devon Energy Corp. of Oklahoma City for $3.5 billion. Devon combined hydraulic fracking with horizontal drilling to become the largest producer in the Barnett Shale.
Fracturing techniques developed here by Mitchell are now being used throughout the United States and the world in both natural gas and oil exploration.
In interview with Forbes magazine in July 2009, he said, “We worked out a great sale with Devon and they’ve done a great job.”
Mitchell also developed The Woodlands, a planned residential, retail and business community north of Houston, and invested extensively in his hometown of Galveston.
He has pledged or given away more than $400 million in grants since 1992.