George Mitchell - The Man Who Figured Out Fracing


December 15, 2012

I recently heard an interview with George Mitchell, the independent operator who found the key for combining hydraulic fracturing technology and horizontal drilling to unlock vast reserves of gas in the Barnett Shale, the first shale play. And it only took him 17 years to figure it out. Now 93 years of age, Mr. Mitchell was interviewed by American Public Media's Marketplace radio program. You can view the interview here.

Mr. Mitchell has some unorthodox views for a wildcatter. First, his foundation, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, has given millions of dollars to support development of clean energy resources. And he supports a carbon tax on hydrocarbons.

Mr. Mitchell also supports tough regulation of independent operators. "I've had too much experience running independents," Mitchell says. "They're wild people. You just can't control them. And if it doesn't do it right, penalize the oil and gas people. Get tough with them." Earlier this year, Mr. Mitchell told Forbes magazine that he is in favor of federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing by the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Mr. Mitchell and NY Mayor Micheal Bloomberg recently teamed up to write an Op Ed piece in the New York Times supporting the development of natural gas reserves with the new fracing technology and pledging their foundations to support efforts to develop responsible regulations to assure that drilling can be done safely:

Several states, including Colorado, New York and Ohio, are taking the lead in this regard, recognizing the need to establish an appropriate framework for regulatory safeguards. It appears that Texas, as the pioneer of hydraulic fracturing in shale formations, is poised to step forward in developing promising state guidelines as well. More such leadership is needed.

To jump-start this effort, each of our foundations will support organizations that seek to work with states and industries to develop common-sense regulations that will protect the environment -- and ensure that the industry can thrive.

We will encourage better state regulation of fracking around five key principles:

     Disclosing all chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process;

     Optimizing rules for well construction and operation;

     Minimizing water consumption, protecting groundwater and ensuring proper disposal of wastewater;

     Improving air pollution controls, including capturing leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and

     Reducing the impact on roads, ecosystems and communities.

The latest research, including peer-reviewed studies out of Carnegie Mellon University and Argonne National Laboratory, suggests that if properly extracted and distributed, the impact of natural gas on the climate is significantly less than that of coal. Safely fracking natural gas can mean healthier communities, a cleaner environment and a reliable domestic energy supply right now.

. . .

We can frack safely if we frack sensibly. That may not make for a great bumper sticker. It does make for good environmental and economic policy.

The Texas Railroad Commission has recently published revised draft regulations specifically aimed at assuring that fracing and well completion operations are conducted safely and adequately protect groundwater resources.

I agree with Mr. Mitchell. Drilling technology is much more complex than it was ten or twenty years ago. Fracing involves managing very high pressures and toxic chemicals. Wells now cost $8 to $10 million. Texas needs to take the lead in assuring that these operations are conducted with the best available technology and safety practices, and the Railroad Commission needs to crack down on operators who don't follow those practices.