Author Loren C. Steffy set high standards for the topic of a business biography, “George P. Mitchell, Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet,” recently published by Texas A&M Press. He wanted to write about “someone who had changed the world.” George P. Mitchell, largely unknown outside his native Southeastern Texas, met that standard, Steffy decided.
A former Houston Chronicle columnist and Bloomberg senior writer, Steffy will discuss Mitchell, the “father of fracking” and developer of The Woodlands planned community near Houston, on Monday at the Petroleum Club in Lafayette. The program, presented by the Lafayette Geological Society and local chapters of the Society of Petroleum Engineers and American Association of Drilling Engineers, will be from 11:30 a.m. to 1p.m.
“He really wasn’t a household name,” Steffy said of Mitchell in a telephone interview this week. Mitchell, a Galveston, Texas, native who made much of his money producing natural gas for sale in Chicago, died in 2013 at age 94. But Mitchell’s work affected every household in America, Steffy said, enabling an American revolution in oil and natural gas production through his support of nearly two decades for fracking.
Because of fracking (and horizontal drilling), Steffy wrote, producers unlocked new reserves in North Dakota and revitalized fields in West Texas and Colorado. U.S. production soared, while American reliance on producers in the Middle East declined. Prices sank with the surfeit of oil and gas, undercutting the industry and changing global dynamics for the energy industry.
For consumers, though, plummeting prices had beneficial effects, Steffy wrote: “Cheaper gasoline alone saved Americans more than $115 billion, or about $550 per licensed driver” in 2016, one study showed. “Meanwhile, the increased oil and gas production that fracking unleashed boosted the average American household’s net worth by $1,900,” another suggested.
Mitchell had doubters about fracking high up within his own company. He’s had no shortage of critics outside the energy industry since, mostly because of environmental concerns. Many knowledgeable industry insiders thought Mitchell was crazy not only to pursue ways to improve fracking, which was not cost-effective, but to doggedly pursue it for 17 years until there was a payoff.
But a Mitchell Energy engineer working in Mitchell’s Barnett Shale wells, using water and sand instead of more expensive gels, solved the mysteries of making fracking affordable. A geologist later determined the Barnett Shale, thought to be tired, held far more natural gas than previously thought. That enabled Mitchell Energy to revitalize its extensive north Texas holdings and reverse the company’s flagging future.
Part of the message Steffy will offer in Lafayette involves reminding people that fracking holds great advantages for energy producers and consumers. It has enabled the U.S. to largely reject coal in favor of cleaner energy sources like natural gas. Those producers fracking need to be more mindful of environmental concerns, Steffy said, but the upsides to fracking and its result, America’s renewed energy production prowess, is shifting the country’s economic strength. The U.S. is no longer beholden to foreign oil sources; we should appreciate that, Steffy says.
Mitchell’s singular triumph in energy production, though, tells only a scant side of his breadth of interests and impacts, the author said. Mitchell’s interests included creating a sustainable community, The Woodlands; revitalizing the landscape and economic fortunes of his hometown of Galveston; supporting scientific research through his financial support of the Superconducting Super Collider; and helping to build the astronomy and astrophysics program at his alma mater, Texas A&M.
“He didn’t do anything in a small way,” Steffy said. That extended to his support for the Houston Racquet Club and for women’s professional tennis as well as support for myriad social and artistic projects launched by his wife, Cynthia.
Steffy’s presentation in the Oil Center will come in the shadow of a former office of Christie, Mitchell & Mitchell at 1020 Auburn St. in Lafayette, space that was rented by one of the early companies Mitchell co-owned. Mitchell’s direct efforts in Louisiana included brief stints in the oil and gas industry in Hackberry and in Jennings. But for the most part, his work was in southeastern Texas.
Despite his personal achievements, Mitchell in his lifetime did not wish for a biography to be written. Instead, he sponsored a history of his own company, which he sold for more than $3 billion. Steffy said he was the first to approach the Mitchell family about a biography; the family was gracious and supportive of his efforts, lending their time and family and company documents to the projects.
Because of Mitchell’s diverse interest and large achievements, Steffy said, the challenge was to not write a “900-page book” that the general public would likely ignore, but to present this work in slightly less than 300 pages. Done. An expert audience, engineers and geologists, will get to discuss it Monday.