Journalist and author Loren Steffy’s latest book explores the life of the late George Mitchell — an Aggie known for his contributions to Texas A&M University and recognized around the world for leading the way in the development of hydraulic fracturing.
Award-winning author and writer-at-large for Texas Monthly, Steffy released George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet last month. Steffy is an A&M graduate, class of 1986, and is a managing director for 30 Point Strategies communications firm.
Mitchell died in 2013 at 94 and is known by many as the “father of fracking,” which is the process of injecting liquids at a high pressure into rocks to extract oil and gas. At a book signing in the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy on Thursday, Steffy said he was surprised by how much he learned about the renowned businessman and philanthropist during his approximately four years working on the book.
Steffy said he was initially interested in writing about Mitchell because of what he thought was a conflict in the innovator’s interests, since Mitchell also was known for caring for the environment.
“That issue of fracking versus sustainability was what first attracted me to the book,” Steffy said. “I thought this was obviously a conflict. … But in working on the book, I realized that in Mitchell’s mind there was no conflict. It made perfect sense because to him sustainability was not just about environmental sustainability — it was about economic sustainability.”
Steffy said Mitchell saw natural gas as the fuel of the future because it was cleaner than oil and coal. While it may not be perfect, Steffy said Mitchell saw it as a step in the right direction.
Mitchell’s success with the development of fracking was the result of 17 years and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trial and error, Steffy said. Throughout the process, Mitchell’s team experimented with gels, water and other materials before they came up with a solution of sand, water and chemicals that could extract natural gas from shale.
The innovation changed the oil and gas industry forever, but Steffy said Mitchell did express concern later in life about how some companies were handling fracking. Mitchell even wrote about the need for responsible regulation in regards to fracking since, Steffy said, he saw that the industry was “getting ahead of itself” and people were getting “sloppy.”
In his lecture, Steffy also touched on when Mitchell created The Woodlands master-planned community outside of Houston and Mitchell’s contributions to A&M’s physics department later in his life. First he contributed $1 million in 2002 to create the Mitchell Institute, and 10 years later he teamed with his foundation, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, to use $20 million to create an endowment for the institute.
Steffy told stories of Mitchell graduating from high school when he was 16 and then from A&M at the top of his class with a petroleum engineering degree in 1940. From wheelchair races with Stephen Hawking later in his life to the story of how Mitchell met his wife, Cynthia, attendees heard more than the typical industry accomplishments often associated with Mitchell’s name.
Mitchell’s daughter, Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz, attended Thursday's event and said it was interesting to see Steffy speak about the book and see how it is being received.
Steffy said the book turned out much differently than he anticipated when he first set out to write it, since Mitchell was such a complex man whose many life experiences were all interconnected.
“I thought I was going to write a book primarily about the development of fracking and information about his environmental interests” Steffy said. “I learned that you don’t get off that easy when you’re writing about George Mitchell.”
For more information on Steffy and information on purchasing the book, visit lorensteffy.com.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained errors about the day Steffy spoke on campus, and the amount of money Mitchell donated to Texas A&M in 2002.