Texas Oilman Created The Fracking Boom, Ignited Energy Startups

7/28/13Follow @angelashah

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kept telling me, ‘You are wasting your money, Mitchell,’ ” he said in a 2009 Forbes article, when he was 90. “And I said, ‘Well, damn it, let’s figure this thing out because there is no question there is a tremendous source bed that’s about 250-feet thick.’  We made it to be the hottest thing going.”

Fracking has become controversial, however. Many, including those who have benefited from mineral rights from drilling wells on their land, oppose fracking for environmental concerns, including the large quantities of water needed to be transported to fracking sites, the fear that carcinogenic chemicals used in fracking could contaminate groundwater, and worries that it could cause small earth tremors.

Still, in obituaries from The New York Times to the Galveston County Daily News, Mitchell was eulogized as the son of a Greek immigrant whose family immigrated to the United States, and who rose in wealth and prominence.

He founded Mitchell Energy and Development in the 1950s and built it into a Fortune 500 company. (In 2001, he sold his company to Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy for $3.5 billion.)

“He was a pioneer and entrepreneur who strived for technological advancements in cleaner energy sources,” says Kirk Coburn, an Xconomist and founder and managing director of Surge, a Houston-based cleantech accelerator. “It was this balance of belief and action that has opened up this country as the future of the world’s energy solutions both old and new.”

In the 1970s, he turned to real estate, developing The Woodlands in 25,000 acres in the Piney Woods north of Houston. The development is now one of the nation’s most thriving master-planned communities. He was partly driven by a desire to solve urban problems, and traveled to Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant and Watts in Los Angeles, researching these areas in planning The Woodlands. In 2001, he said he regretted that his creation failed to achieve the racial mix he had sought and recommended that it be annexed by Houston, according to The Times.

In the early 1990s, Mitchell expressed his disappointment that the U.S. Congress cancelled the Superconducting Supercollider project, which was based in a south Dallas suburb. That criticism developed into a somewhat unexpected friendship between an 80-something Texas oilman and Stephen Hawking, the famed astrophysicist. Mitchell ensured that the 182-seat lecture hall at the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M was named after Hawking.

Mitchell’s first lessons in entrepreneurship came from his parents, Mike and Katina Mitchell, who ran a shoeshine parlor and drycleaners in Galveston in the early years of the 20th century. Mike Mitchell changed his name from Savvas Paraskevopoulos, after an employer with the last name of Mitchell complained that he couldn’t say or spell the Greek surname on his paycheck, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Mitchell’s wife, Cynthia, died in 2006.

“His vision and the persistent pragmatism leading to the small steady pace of innovation changed the landscape,” says Russ Conser, program manager at Shell Game Changer. “He got people to take a risk on unproven land. If I were a young entrepreneur and wanted to build a business, I would read the George Mitchell playbook.”

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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