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Energy independence: Texas oilman's idea leads to today's shale boom

Texas oilman George Mitchell is credited with discovering how to economically recover natural gas from hard, dense shale rock deep underground. His techniques fueled the oil and natural gas boom over the past five years.
by Adam Wilmoth Published: October 1, 2012

That all changed just two years later.

“In 2001, I recontacted George Mitchell and asked if we could take another look,” Nichols said. “He had solved some of the technical problems we saw in 1999. We saw the potential to greatly broaden what he was doing.”

One of the main challenges with the Barnett was that a layer of water rested just below the Barnett, without a hard rock layer in between. Because of that, Mitchell's company had to be careful that hydraulic fracturing used to shatter portions of the Barnett rock did not extend fractures to the water. Otherwise, the well produced only water, not natural gas.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, had been used by the industry for decades, but Mitchell developed a unique blend of water, sand and other additives at a specific pressure that was successful in the Barnett.

Devon built on Mitchell's research. The larger company used its cash flow to drill numerous horizontal wells with Mitchell's fracking mix.

Now companies industrywide are reaching oil and natural gas in shale — hard, dense rock — deeper than they ever have.

Mitchell's research was built upon the findings of earlier U.S. Department of Energy-funded research on shale drilling in Appalachia. Mitchell knew the Barnett Shale contained large amounts of natural gas, and he believed his company could figure out how to make the shale rock profitable.

The Energy Department also helped evaluate and partially pay for the company's early wells in the Barnett in 1991.

Steward said he and the company were grateful for the government support, which allowed the project to be completed a decade or two earlier than it would have otherwise. But he said the biggest factor was Mitchell himself.

“If he had given up, the project would have died,” Steward said. “The shale gas revolution we are experiencing now is because George Mitchell stayed with it. If he had given up, it would have died. There are several people who wanted him to give up. Several said he was throwing away their retirement on something that was not any good.”

by Adam Wilmoth
Energy Editor
Adam Wilmoth returned to The Oklahoman as energy editor in 2012 after working for four years in public relations. He previously spent seven years as a business reporter at The Oklahoman, including five years covering the state's energy sector....
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