COLLEGE STATION — Texas A&M University figures prominently in Foreign Policy magazine’s just-announced list of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” for 2011, with George P. Mitchell, a 1940 Texas A&M distinguished petroleum engineering graduate, and Terry Engelder, who earned a Ph.D. in geology at Texas A&M in 1973, included “for upending the geopolitics of energy.” They were specifically cited for their key roles that led to the process of fracking — breaking up shale containing natural gas deposits, a development that led to releasing vast reserves of natural gas and “reordered the global balance of energy and the political power that comes with it,” according to the editors of the magazine.
Mitchell is a legendary independent oil-and-gas operator based in Houston, and Engelder has served since 1985 as a professor of geosciences at Penn State. They were joined in sharing the 36th place among the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by Gary Lash, professor of geosciences at State University of New York, Fredonia.
Mitchell, the undisputed father of the Barnett Shale, was the pioneer of horizontal drilling with a light sand frack. It took him 17 years of experimentation to demonstrate that this approach to extracting gas from shale formations was economically viable. The exploitation of this technology has opened up huge, global-energy-map-changing natural gas reserves, including the Marcellus Shale formation in the United States Northeast, estimated by Engelder in 2009 to be the world’s largest at nearly 500 trillion cubic feet.
In 1983, fueled by Mitchell’s breakthrough technique and a National Science Foundation grant, Engelder began investigating natural fracking to generate fractures in gas shale, subsequently mapping the process along with Lash in the Marcellus Shale and other gas shale formations of the Appalachian basin. The development, coupled with their suggestion of horizontal drilling, enabled companies like Mitchell Energy — one of the largest independent gas and oil producers in the nation which merged with Devon Energy in 2002 — to recover the gas more economically and efficiently, to the tune of 4.8 trillion cubic feet between 2006 and 2010, nearly quintupling previous U.S. shale gas production numbers and accounting for almost a quarter of U.S. natural gas production for that period.
Mitchell has for decades been widely viewed as an idealist and visionary in circles eclipsing energy and industry. In addition to parlaying his Texas A&M studies in petroleum engineering and geology into highly successful oil and gas operations, he developed The Woodlands, the highly acclaimed planned town north of Houston. His business and financial successes also paved the way for him and his late wife, Cynthia Mitchell, to become major philanthropists whose gifts have benefited numerous endeavors and organizations, including Texas A&M. In recognition of their multi-million dollar gifts made over several decades in support of a variety of academic and other programs, two state-of-the-art physics and astronomy buildings and the tennis complex bear the Mitchell name. Mitchell’s most recent financial support has been in the form of multi-million dollar funding on Texas A&M’s behalf in the quest to build the Giant Magellan Telescope, for which the world’s physics and astronomy communities hold great hope for more fully understanding the outer reaches of the universe — underscoring Mitchell’s long-standing reputation as a big-picture thinker and doer.
Mitchell and Engelder will be honored along with the rest of the Global Thinkers (the complete list is available at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/2011globalthinkers) at a gala hosted by Washington Post Company CEO Don Graham. Foreign Policy magazine is an award-winning magazine of global politics, economics and ideas published by the Slate Group, a division of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLC.