George Mitchell

Mitchell Energy & Development Corp.

Editor's note: This profile is part of Hart Energy's 50th anniversary Hall of Fame series honoring industry pioneers of the past 50 years and the Agents of Change (ACEs) who are leading the energy sector into the future.

George Mitchell

George Mitchell, a petroleum engineer and geologist, had been exploring the Lower 48 since 1946 with a degree from Texas A&M and just discharged from the U.S. Army. In 1952, his Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. entered the new Bend-conglomerate gas play that Continental Oil Co. launched in 1951 in the Fort Worth Basin. 

In 1981, he had the team drill a vertical, C.W. Slay 1, into the underlying Barnett shale and completed it in 1982. Permeability and porosity were so poor they were practically immeasurable. In “The American Shales,” he said, “They kept telling me, ‘You’re wasting your time.’”

More than 250 wells later, the program was still marginal. But Union Pacific Resources Group was having success with a new frac recipe in 1996 in the tight Cotton Valley sandstone in East Texas that involved less sand, thus less gel and, overall, less spend. Mitchell Energy rolled it out in 1997. 

The company also determined there was far more gas in place in the shale and that its vertical wells might be recovering up to 8% of it and not 30%. Also, it quit clay stabilizers, determining it wasn’t needed.

By 2000, it was making 179 MMcf/d from the Barnett—roughly as much as from its entire E&P portfolio just five years earlier. With reduced spacing, it had 4,000 potential, additional well locations in a core area of Wise and Denton counties; altogether, it had more than 550,000 net acres in North Texas.

Devon Energy bought the company in early 2002 for $3.5 billion. Mitchell’s work in the Barnett spawned others’ development of new gas plays in the Fayetteville, Woodford, Marcellus, Haynesville and Utica.

Dan Steward, Mitchell’s vice president of geology during work on the Barnett, said in “The American Shales” that Mitchell had the team “experimenting with things in the Barnett that we didn’t really understand. I mean, when we tried the first (light-sand frac), most people thought that was a stupid thing to do because, generally speaking, you don’t put freshwater on shales. 

“But they didn’t understand that we already knew the Barnett was not sensitive to freshwater where we were working.”

DUG 2008
Hart Energy’s DUG Conference in Fort Worth in 2008 honored George Mitchell: Left to right, John Richels, chief executive of Devon Energy Corp.; Mitchell; Oil and Gas Investor then editor-in-chief Leslie Haines; and J. Larry Nichols, founder and executive chairman of Devon Energy Corp., which acquired Mitchell’s company in 2002. (Source: Hart Energy)

Mitchell said his advice to this and future generations is something globally acclaimed geoscientist Michel Halbouty “used to tell me all the time…: ‘Come on! Explore! Do something.’”

In his obituary, his family wrote of “stargazing on warm summer nights in (his hometown of) Galveston” and that his childhood dream had been to be an astronomer. 

After selling Mitchell Energy, “the twinkle of starlight was rekindled in his imagination.” He went on to found the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M and co-funded construction of “six massive mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope, an unprecedented, high-risk, engineering project that proved the technology existed to open new horizons in astronomy. 

“…He dreamed big.”

—Nissa Darbonne, Executive Editor-at-Large

Click here to see the rest of Hart Energy's 2023 Hall of Fame.