Australia Markets closed

Texas oilman and fracking pioneer dies

 

Billionaire Texas oilman George Mitchell, considered the father of the oil and gas production technique commonly known as fracking, has died aged 94.

Mitchell, the son of a Greek immigrant, became one of the wealthiest men in the US. His dogged pursuit of the natural gas he and others knew were trapped in wide, thin layers of rock deep underground brought a new - and enormous - trove of oil and gas within reach.

His controversial breakthrough led to a revolution in oil and gas production in the US, one that is expected to migrate around the world.

The US is now the world's largest producer of natural gas and is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest oil producer by the end of the decade, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The fracking boom sent natural gas prices plummeting, reducing energy costs for US consumers and businesses. And by boosting US oil production, it has sharply reduced oil imports.

It has led to a dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and emissions of toxic chemicals such as mercury in the US by replacing coal in electric power generation.

At the same time, some environmentalists worry the fracking process or the disposal of fracking wastewater can leak into drinking water supplies and contaminate them.

Daniel Yergin, the energy historian and author of The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, said in a statement that Mitchell "changed the world energy outlook in the 21st century and set in motion the global rebalancing of oil and gas that is now occurring".

For the entire oil and gas age, drillers had searched for hydrocarbons that had seeped out of layers of sedimentary rock over millions of years and collected into large pools. Once found, they were easy to produce. Engineers merely had to drill into the pools, and the natural pressure of the earth would send huge volumes of oil and gas to the surface.

These pools are exceedingly rare, though, and they were quickly being tapped out as the world's consumption grew, raising fears that the end of the oil and gas age would soon be at hand and raising prices to alarming levels.

Mitchell's idea: Go directly to the sedimentary rock holding the oil and gas, essentially speeding up geological processes by thousands of millennia.

He figured out how to drill into and then along layers of gas-laden rock, then force a slurry of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into the rock to crack it open and release the hydrocarbons. This process, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, is now common industry practice.

Engineers after Mitchell learned to adapt the process to oil-bearing rock.

A family statement said Mitchell "will be fondly remembered for flying in the face of convention - focusing on what could be, with boundless determination - many times fighting through waves of skepticism and opposition to achieve his vision".

This year, the annual Forbes list of wealthiest Americans ranked Mitchell 239th with a net worth of $US2 billion ($A2.18 billion).

Over his career, he participated in drilling some 10,000 wells. His company, Mitchell Energy & Development, was credited with more than 200 oil and 350 natural gas discoveries.

The firm spent nearly two decades developing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, finally finding success in the 1990s.

Mitchell sold his energy company in 2002 for $US3.1 billion.