As impactful figures go, the late George P. Mitchell was a Texas giant.
The natural gas magnate’s long shadow stretched over his beloved Texas A&M University, where he spearheaded the growth and development of the astronomy/astrophysics department; The Woodlands community near Houston, which he developed; the Superconducting Super Collider, which he helped finance; his hometown, Galveston, which he revived. Friends of the cerebral Mitchell included Buckminster Fuller and Stephen Hawking. He was a big thinker.
How much of a giant was he? Well, Jett Rink, fictional lead character in the blockbuster 1956 movie, “Giant,” was based upon the real-life Glenn McCarthy, a Houston wildcatter who was Mitchell’s client.
But Loren Steffy, author of the recently published “George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet,” recently talked to a Petroleum Club audience in Lafayette mostly about Mitchell’s impact on fracking — eventually, hydraulic fracturing — which Steffy said has transformed much of our world. It might have never come to pass without the support of Mitchell, whose company spent 17 years advancing research and refinement of fracking processes to produce energy resources. Mitchell pushed forward on fracking when others in his industry, even his own company, pushed back, thinking it economically futile.
Steffy spoke in the near-shadow of an Oil Center building where Mitchell and his associates rented a Lafayette office in the ‘50s. Mitchell also worked in Jennings, Hackberry and Vinton.
Fracking’s impact created a sea change for U.S. energy; because of it, we export liquefied natural gas rather than import it. Coastal LNG export facilities dot Cameron Parish’s coastline, immense investments. Fracking’s been credited for U.S. energy production resurgence, which has transformed America into an oil and gas exporter. The tight grip of Middle East oil producers has relaxed on the United States because of that prowess.
Is that a net good? Naysayers suggest that fracking endangers the United States because of the risks it imposes on people through earthquakes, poor air quality, spills and climate change. Steffy, though, raised the possibility that fracking may be one of Mitchell’s most helpful, lasting contributions.
Mitchell, passionate about sustainability, 50 years ago rightly identified cleaner-burning natural gas, not oil, as the energy source of the future. Natural gas, endlessly available by fracking, has allowed the world to shun coal. As with many marks of progress, there are trade-offs.
Steffy’s Lafayette stopover, where he spoke to engineering and geology groups, reminded us of such trade-offs, and the value of big thinkers.