Mitchell, George Phydias (1919–2013)

By: Ron Bass and Laurie E. Jasinski

Type: Biography

Published: August 30, 2020

Updated: December 28, 2020


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George Phydias Mitchell, pioneering oil and gas engineer, developer of hydraulic fracturing, company founder, land developer, and philanthropist, was born in Galveston, Texas, on May 21, 1919. He was the son of Michael Mitchell and Katina (Eleftheriou) Mitchell. His parents both emigrated independently from Greece in the early 1900s and met in Houston. His father, who arrived in Houston in 1905, was named Savvas Paraskevopoulos but took the name Mike Mitchell when he arrived in the United States. After his parents married they moved to Galveston where they raised their family. Mike Mitchell ran a dry-cleaning and shoeshine business but also took part in gambling on occasion. His son George, an avid reader as a child, undertook various enterprises to help supplement the family’s often difficult financial circumstances. He worked at his Uncle Jimmy’s restaurant and bathhouse in Galveston. He also caught fish and sold them to tourists, along with his own homemade bamboo fishing poles and various sea treasures, such as sand dollars and shells, that he collected. George Mitchell attended Sam Houston Elementary School in Galveston. When he was thirteen, his mother died, and shortly thereafter his father was seriously injured when he was hit by a car. George then lived with his maternal uncle (Jimmy Lampis) and aunt. He attended Ball High School in Galveston, and he excelled in his studies and graduated in 1935.

 George Mitchell, having graduated at the age of sixteen from high school but considered too young for college, spent his time between studies working as a roustabout for his older brother Johnny in Vinton, Louisiana, in the summer of 1936. During this time he developed a passion for the oil and gas industry. He enrolled at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (present-day Texas A&M University) in fall 1936 and studied petroleum engineering and geology. He was also captain of the tennis team there. During this time he paid his way through school by providing tailoring and laundry services and selling candy and stationery to fellow students. In 1940 Mitchell graduated first in his class with a degree in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M. After graduation he went to work for the oil company Amoco in the East Texas and Louisiana oilfields. During World War II Mitchell spent four years in the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and oversaw engineering projects in Galveston. On October 31, 1943, he married Cynthia Loretta Woods. They later had ten children.

After the war Mitchell settled in Houston. In 1947 George joined with his brother Johnny and oil broker H. Merlyn Christie and operated as Oil Drilling, Inc. While his brother engaged in the promotional side of the oil and gas business, George provided the geological and engineering expertise. In 1952 their company purchased an area, known as the “Wildcatters’ Graveyard,” in Wise County north of Fort Worth and struck a number of successful natural gas wells. They subsequently leased more than 300,000 acres in the area the following year, and their risky investment paid off hugely with the discovery of one of the largest natural gas strikes in industry history. By 1962, with H. Merlyn Christie’s retirement, George and Johnny Mitchell purchased Christie’s shares and reorganized the business as Mitchell and Mitchell Oil and Gas Corporation. George was chief shareholder and company president. In 1964 the company owned approximately 1,000 producing wells. The company was eventually named Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation and went public on the American Stock Exchange in 1972.

Over his career, George Mitchell participated in drilling approximately 10,000 wells, including more than 1,000 wildcats—wells drilled away from known fields. Through his company, he was credited with more than 200 oil discoveries and 350 natural gas discoveries. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the oil and gas industry came with his relentless and almost singlehanded pioneering effort to develop hydraulic fracturing (commonly called fracking).

His firm spent nearly two decades developing hydraulic fracturing. In 1981 Mitchell began to explore in the Barnett Shale, a thick layer of tight rock, thousands of square miles in area, located deep beneath land in Wise County north of Fort Worth. Oil and gas companies were successful in bringing up fuel from above and below the shale but not from the shale itself. Mitchell sought to drill into the tight shale, then fracture it with highly pressurized fluids to free natural gas.

Though geologists had tried hydraulic fracturing as early as the 1940s, the process had never been a viable commercial option. During the 1980s and early 1990s Mitchell's company drilled many experimental wells but did not cover the cost of fracking until the thirty-sixth well. Though many naysayers in the industry (and some in his own company) regarded his efforts as foolhardy, costly, and highly impractical, Mitchell, described as a “tenacious visionary,” stubbornly held to his instincts that hydraulic fracturing could revolutionize the industry. "We had people who told us we were nuts," said Mitchell Energy geologist Dan Steward, “‘But for George Mitchell’—whose North Texas wells were drying up—‘this was survival, this was need.’” 

In 1997, one of Mitchell’s shale gas wells, fractured by injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals (rather than more costly gels and foams used elsewhere), established the financial viability of hydraulic fracturing and opened up previously unavailable natural gas reserves in the nation. Dubbed the “father of Barnett Shale,” Mitchell later bankrolled rigs for a company exploring in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania. His son Todd and Joe Greenberg, a geologist, headed the company. In the 2010s the Marcellus Shale had become the largest U. S. gas resource. Mitchell’s methods were applied by other gas exploration companies in other states.

The new abundance of inexpensive natural gas (and later oil) transformed the U.S. industrial landscape. Oil industry historian Daniel Yergin later described Mitchell’s work and impact on the oil and gas industry as the “most important, and the biggest, energy innovation of this century.” New investment in power plants using natural gas to generate electricity accelerated the demise of costlier coal and nuclear plants. U.S. chemical manufacturers added factories that used gas as a raw material. Natural gas import facilities built earlier in the 2000s, when the United States expected domestic oil and gas production to dwindle, instead began to add facilities to export U.S. liquefied natural gas overseas to Europe and Asia. Natural gas production in the United States increased by almost 50 percent from 2005 to 2015. Consequently, cleaner-burning natural gas accounted for more electricity generation than coal for the first time in 2015 and the resulting dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. By the end of the 2010s the United States, with prolific domestic production, pronounced greater energy security from disruptions in foreign oil and gas markets.

Mitchell’s company employed approximately 2,000 people in the late 1990s. In 2002 he sold Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation to Devon Energy Corporation for $3.5 billion. By then, new horizontal drilling techniques made shale gas wells even more productive. By 2012 natural gas extracted from shale accounted for about 35 percent of the nation’s natural gas production. In his later years, Mitchell advocated tighter regulations and safer procedures regarding hydraulic fracturing to ensure environmental protections and earn public trust in the industry.

Mitchell championed environmental sustainability, which he did not see as mutually exclusive from energy exploration and production. As early as 1964 Mitchell’s company began purchasing tracts that eventually amounted to approximately 25,000 acres of wooded land in southern Montgomery County. Mitchell envisioned a new community that was built to accommodate large areas of greenspace and the natural topography. By the early 1970s he began developing The Woodlands, a suburban Houston master-planned community, while preserving the East Texas forest and other natural resources covering its thousands of acres. The Woodlands opened in 1974. Mitchell sold the development in 1997. By 2010 The Woodlands was home to almost 100,000 residents.

Deeply philanthropical, Mitchell donated hundreds of millions of dollars to help the needy and to further efforts for environmental sustainability. In 1978 he and his wife established the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, which by 2020 had given or pledged more than $400 million to a variety of causes. Mitchell funded and established the Houston Advanced Research Center, which was devoted to environmental issues, in 1982. In 1990 the family began a long-term conservation project at their 5,600-acre Pineywoods preserve known as Cook’s Branch. The project later earned a number of land steward awards. His foundation’s funding of studies for cleaner environmental operations in the energy industry prompted other oil industry leaders to investigate such methods.

He was a particularly generous benefactor to his alma mater Texas A&M University and donated some $95 million to that institution. Mitchell’s donation of the land for Texas A&M University at Galveston prompted Adm. Robert Smith III, the school's president, to comment, "His contributions to this university literally made this institution possible." In 2002 Mitchell established the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

Mitchell also took an interest in his hometown of Galveston and spent tens of millions rebuilding the town. Beginning in the mid-1980s he and his wife brought back the Mardi Gras celebration. He provided money to help restore the city's historic downtown Strand District. He helped renovate the Galvez and Tremont hotels and ramped up rebuilding efforts for Galveston in the wake of Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Throughout his life he was an avid tennis player, fisherman, and amateur astronomer. By 2012 Mitchell, in partnership with a number of institutions, including the Carnegie Institute of Science, had invested $30 million in the project to begin construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope. The Mitchell Foundation also gave to many other causes and institutions, including the University of Houston and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

In 2013 the annual Forbes list of wealthiest Americans ranked Mitchell 239th with a net worth of $2 billion. Late in life he signed The Giving Pledge, a campaign encouraging billionaires to commit to giving most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. In February 2013 he was honored with the Texas State History Museum Foundation’s 2013 History-Making Texan Award.

George Phydias Mitchell died of natural causes in Galveston on July 26, 2013. He was ninety-four. His wife Cynthia had preceded him in death in 2009.

David Blackmon, “George P. Mitchell: A Visionary Life,” Forbes, July 30, 2013 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidblackmon/2013/07/30/george-p-mitchell-a-visionary-life/#3998ee121340), accessed July 22, 2020. The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation: Timeline (https://cgmf.org/p/timeline.html), accessed July 23, 2020. Christopher Helman, “Father Of The Fracking Boom Dies—George Mitchell Urged Greater Regulation of Drilling,” Forbes, July 27, 2013 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2013/07/27/father-of-the-fracking-boom-dies-george-mitchell-urged-greater-regulation-of-drilling/#247351111978), accessed July 23, 2020. Houston Chronicle, July 30, 2013. Loren C. Steffy, George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2019).

Categories:

  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civic Leaders
  • Business
  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Company Founders
  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Natural Gas Industry
  • Oil Entrepreneurs and Wildcatters
  • Petroleum Engineers
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
  • Science
  • Geologists and Geophysicists

Time Periods:

  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

Places:

  • Houston
  • Galveston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ron Bass and Laurie E. Jasinski, “Mitchell, George Phydias,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 18, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/mitchell-george-phydias.

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August 30, 2020
December 28, 2020

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