George P. Mitchell: Person of the Year

 by Avi Davis
This week TIME, as it has customarily done every December since 1927, announced its Person of the Year – a designation for the man, woman, organization or ‘thing’ which has most influenced the world over the past twelve months.  The nod this year fell to the Ebola Fighters – the doctors, nurses and administrators who battled the deadly virus in West Africa, in some cases contracting the pathogen themselves.
While the Ebola fighters are certainly worthy of recognition, can it really be said that they, more than any other humans of earth, influenced the course of events on Planet Earth? The fight against Ebola was limited to a rather small of the planet ( perhaps, indeed, due to the ability of these individuals to contain its spread) but it cannot be claimed  that either the outbreak of the virus nor its containment had a significant impact on our lives.
But there is one phenomenon that certainly did.   The year 2014 marked the first time the fracking revolution in the United States sent economic and political shock waves around the world, causing world oil prices to plummet and rogue nations such as Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba to tremble. It was felt in one way or another by every man, woman and child and its swelling impact may be felt for centuries into the future.
For should we fail to remember:  gas prices in the United States at the pump  dropped in some places by close to 30%, a result of  the world wide price of oil itself dropping by nearly a half from a high of  $120 a barrel to $65.  This unleashed a consumer windfall providing a tremendous stimulant to an anemic U.S.economic recovery;  the oil glut which resulted made certain oil and natural gas producers such as Venezuela and Russia almost redundant as they witnessed a dramatic slowdown in revenue, so much so that only a few weeks ago the Russian rouble lost nearly 20% of its value.  Meanwhile the United States became the leading supplier of oil and natural gas in the world and is certain to become energy independent by 2020.
As the New York Times has noted:  “Fracking and other unconventional techniques have doubled North American natural gas reserves to three quadrillion cubic feet — the rough equivalent of 500 billion barrels of oil, or almost double Saudi Arabia’s crude inventory. The increase came after four decades of decline.”
How did this happen?
It happened because one man had the tenacity and vision to stick to developing a controversial technology to drill for oil. It happened because he never gave up and when he succeeded, he gave the inspiration to hundreds of others  to follow in his footsteps.
George P. Mitchell, who died at the age of 94 in July this year, was the son of a Greek immigrant who ran a dry cleaning business and the chief pioneer of hydraulic fracturing, the now common industry process known as fracking that uses chemicals with water under high pressure to crack open rock formations and release oil and natural gas.
Over the course of 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 hydraulic fracturing, finally finding success in North Texas’ Barnett Shale formation in the 1990s.

Hydraulic fracturing has been around since the late 1940s but until only very recently was at all profitable. That profitability came as a result of Mitchell’s far sighted vision and the application of new, risky technologies aimed at extracting oil from shale deposits that even his own employees had cast doubt as likely to ever produce a profit.

In 2014,the results of this persistence had world wide ramifications.  U.S. oil production ballooned from 850,000 barrels a day to 1.2 million, making  the country the  largest oil producer in the world.

The added competition on world markets caused a rapid drop in price per barrel of crude from $120 a barrel to $65 a barrel.  This in turned had a seismic impact on such countries as Russia, Venezuela and Iran, three countries which have used their oil wealth to mount geo-political challenges to the United States and as actual economic leverage against the West in multiple ways.

One can imagine that if this revolution continues, the United States will not only become oil independent (for the first time since the 1920s), will not only re-energize it’s faltering economy, but re establish a sway over international relations that it has lost over the pas six years.  The dominance over energy markets and the booming economy that it is likely to produce will return more investment into R&D, encouraging the development of even more efficient, clean technologies for mining oil and natural gas.  This boom, all other potential offsetting matters aside, could carry the United States through the remainder of this century as the world’s undisputed leader.   It could mean the broader spread of democracy, of free enterprise and of individual liberty than  we have ever seen.

And all this from the vision of one man whose dreams at one time  90% of his own work force and managerial staff thought untenable.

To appreciate George P. Mitchell the oil baron, we need to understand George Mitchell the man.  Married for 67 years, he was the father of 10 children, a devout Christian who gave of his time to hundreds and was his home town Galveston’s most prominent philanthropist.

Mitchell graduated first in his class of 1940 at Texas A&M University with degrees in petrochemical engineering and geology. He helped pay for his school costs by running a tailoring and laundry business in College Station and selling candy and stationery to his fellow students .

He spent four years in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Afterward, he struck out on his own with a brother and a partner as a wildcatter operation.

Over the years, he spent tens of millions rebuilding his hometown of Galveston, resurrecting a long-dormant annual Mardi Gras celebration and singlehandedly providing money helping to restore the city.

He donated the land for Texas A&M University at Galveston.

“To say he was a great man with foresight and generosity isn’t enough,” Adm. Robert Smith III, the school’s president, said. “His contributions to this university literally made this institution possible.”

His Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, founded in 1979, has made more than $400 million in gifts.

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst both called Mitchell a true Texas legend.

“George Mitchell was a pioneer in the energy industry and was admired by many around the world for his entrepreneurial spirit,” Dewhurst said.

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 later would call it his most satisfying achievement.

The Woodlands is now home to about 100,000 people and one of the nation’s busiest outdoor performing arts and entertainment venues there carries his wife’s name, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

“His ambition and success have transformed our region,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said. “He was a visionary, and showed his love for Houston through his work and hometown pride>”

George Mitchell did not invent hydraulic fracturing, or fracking;  but he popularized it and made it profitable.  He did not intend to begin a revolution that would challenge rogue regimes and restore U..S. energy dominance, but his ‘can-do’ philosophy, so quintessentially American, made it possible.
It is instructive that in the same issue that TIME Magazine announced it’s Person of the Year, reviewing all the candidates who may have influenced world events, not one mention is made of the fracking revolution or the man who inspired it.  Nor in its special edition, The Year in Review, do we see any reference to these fast moving, extraordinary changes which we can see occurring all around us.  Is it not astonishing how prejudice and a purblind, narrow perspective can shutter the imaginations of even our most reputedly insightful observers?
Others might lay claim to having a more media friendly set of achievements.  But for sheer influence on world events and as the likely progenitor of even greater ones to come, my vote for Person of the Year in 2014 goes to the late, great American entrepreneur, George Phydias Mitchell.

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