Texas Oilman Created The Fracking Boom, Ignited Energy Startups

Texas billionaire oilman George Mitchell, who spawned a modern-day gold rush as the “father of fracking,” died Friday in Galveston. He was 94.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, refers to a procedure that injects fluids under pressure to increase the yield of underground oil and gas formations. Mitchell’s innovation set off an entrepreneurial boom in the development of new oil and gas sites throughout North America, and fostered a wave of new startups that found their niches in the new industry.

Mitchell’s discovery came late in his life, in the 1990s, after a career in oil, real estate development, and philanthropy for more than five decades had made him a prized Texas son. His use of hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells dramatically increased oil and gas yields from formations, including the Barnett shale near Fort Worth, which had been exhausted using existing technology. Mitchell’s innovative technology, which he never patented, has been used to tap oil and gas fields around the world, including Australia and Poland.

“Natural gas would not be as inexpensive or as readily available without the use or horizontal drilling and fracking,” says Walter Ulrich, president and chief executive officer at the Houston Technology Center (HTC). “He has created new jobs and expanded the energy industry here in Texas and beyond.”

Fracking spawned a new generation of innovative startups, such as Texas Energy Network, which sells systems to improve communications to drilling sites in far-flung parts of the world, where conventional Internet and cell service can be sketchy. Oxane Materials, another startup using nanotechnology developed at Rice University, creates what is essentially customized sand particles, or nanoshells, to extract natural gas more thoroughly and efficiently. Neohydro uses a high-voltage electrolysis process to recycle industrial wastewater. Lured by half a million dollars in funding from local investors, Neohydro moved to the west Houston suburb of Sugar Land in 2009 from Salt Lake City.

“None of this would exist without George Mitchell,” says HTC’s Ulrich.

Like many entrepreneurs, Mitchell said he was told to abandon his idea; that it wouldn’t work. “My engineers … Next Page »

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