George P. Mitchell for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I nominate Texas oilman George P. Mitchell for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.

Mitchell studied at Texas A&M University, where he graduated first in his class with a degree in Petroleum Engineering. Born to Greek immigrant parents in Galveston Texas in 1919, George P. Mitchell built a Fortune 500 energy business Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation.

George P. Mitchell’s was both a deliberate and perhaps an inadvertent environmentalist. A philanthropic supporter of environmental causes, Mitchell ironically made a far greater positive impact on the environment through his market activities. More ironic still, many environmentalists somewhere on the ya-hoo to yay-hoo spectrum (a man from Wyoming once tried to explain the difference to me- but it is awfully complex) hate Mitchell’s fantastic environmental triumph.

Mitchell combined and developed the techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) that is in the process of revolutionizing the energy business.

A biography page of Mr. Mitchell notes just how long and hard Mitchell and company worked to develop this process:

Mitchell Energy sunk a lot of money over a long period into learning how to stimulate the rock so it would flow,” says Potter. Their first attempts were expensive “massive hydraulic frac jobs.” They would pump a very large volume of fluid and sand down a well bore to crack the rock and give it more permeability. At first, they got the gas flowing, but the methods and materials were expensive. So they wondered if they could pump less fluid and get the same effect.

They arrived at something called a light sand frac,” says Potter. “Suddenly it was economical and at the same time-in the mid-1990s-the price of gas was rising. By the late 1990s, they had perfected the technique in vertical wells and started applying it to several hundred wells. That’s when it came to the attention of industry.”

“Then it was realized, oh, if you scale that up to the whole area and then to the whole county and up to the whole Basin, the amounts of gas are really quite prodigious,” says Potter. “People became aware of that in 2002 and 2003 and that really got the ball rolling.”

“It took George Mitchell 18 years to make it work,” notes Larry Brogdon, partner and chief geologist for Four Sevens Oil Company. “He is the father of the Barnett Shale. He was tenacious. He started in 1981 and it really didn’t take off until 1999. And even then, it took a long time to develop it.”

So what have been the benefits of Mitchell’s steadfast pursuit of this technology? Mark J. Perry provides the answers:

Let’s start with oil production in Mitchell’s state of Texas:

Peak what? North Dakota is booming as well:

And the energy sector is close to the only hot thing going in our depressed economy..

Most prominently on the environmental side of things, he has radically increased the supply of Natural Gas in America and a growing number of elsewhere, and this is killing the use of coal.

Natural gas produces less pollution than coal and it is cheap in America, so you see trends like this:

Leading to this:

The United States is going to meet Kyoto carbon emission goals despite the fact that we never signed the treaty. As it turns out, George P. Mitchell took care of things for us.

Casting their credibility out the window of a 100 story building, some environmentalists have gone to political war with Mitchell’s technology. The Washington Post is not confused about the desirability of fracking, blasting New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for delaying the use of the technique in his state in an editorial:

… anti-fracking activists who hope delay begets delay and eventually prohibition are doing the environment no favor. Burning natural gas produces only about half the carbon emissions as burning coal, which produced 42 percent of America’s electricity in 2011. With the increasingly common use of fracking, natural gas prices have plummeted, encouraging a switch from coal to gas, and the country’s emissions trajectory has improved.

A suite of technologies has brought vast supplies of previously unrecoverable shale gas within reach of humans, dramatically expanding natural gas reserves in the U.S. and around the world. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have produced a fuel that can at once promote a cooler planet and an expanded economy, essentially eliminating the tradeoff between climate change mitigation and the pursuit of other public projects and, perhaps, economic growth.

Compare all of this to the epic boondoggle of President Obama’s attempt to push solar power before its time (if it is ever going to have a time). The Wall Street Journal gives you the blow-by-blow on that one.

George P. Mitchell’s influence on the world is set to grow ever larger. With the new technologies for instance, Israel now has recoverable fuel reserves comparable to Saudi Arabia. Foreign Policy attempted to forecast the winners and losers of the new energy abundance and on balance, it is looking very good overall.

Mitchell has supported sustainability and even the deeply misguided Club of Rome report as a philanthropist, but in a deeply telling twist of fate, it was his determined entrepreneurial activities that have produced not only environmental benefits but also enormous prosperity and hope for the future. This Texas Wildcatter turns out to have been the ultimate environmentalist, as is implied in the Washington Post’s editorial linked to above:

True, half the emissions does not mean no emissions. But the United States does not have to eliminate its carbon footprint all at once, nor should it. Doing so would cost far too much. Instead, natural gas can play a big role in transitioning to cleaner energy cheaply. A recent analysis from Resources for the Future, a think tank, shows that low, fracking-driven natural gas prices combined with efficiency measures and a serious carbon tax would result in a massive increase in the use of natural gas, nearly eliminating America’s coal dependence by 2035 and cutting emissions from the electricity sector by more than half. Renewable technologies, meanwhile, would have time to lower costs and address other hurdles to widespread deployment before picking up more of the load later in the century.

Environmentalists, in other words, should hope fracking is safe — and permitted.

George P. Mitchell’s triumph proves Milton Friedman’s point perfectly and illustrates that it even applies to environmentalism:

I therefore place Mr, Mitchell’s name in nomination for the Al: an Aggie who has earned an enthusiastic Thumbs Up from this Longhorn and deserves one from  everyone.

Okay, almost everyone…

4 Responses to George P. Mitchell for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

  1. When I first saw the headline of this post I thought you were nominating George Mitchell of Wisconsin. George was a founding father of the modern school choice advocacy movement. And I believe that he played a central role in getting Matt Ladner involved in education policy by getting a comparativist to apply his well honed statistical and rhetorical skills to a Texas school choice proposal. For that alone the Wisconsin George Mitchell ( and occasional commentator on this blog) may be worthy of an Al Copeland nomination.

    But saving the environment by developing innovative techniques to dramatically increase the production of cheap, clean, and domestic natural gas is also pretty good — maybe even as good as bringing Ladner into the world of education policy.

  2. Matthew Ladner says:

    The Wisconsin George Mitchell is worthy of a nomination despite this unfortunate Ladner business. 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

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