What would George Mitchell Do? [Opinion]

The late George P. Mitchell, who would have turned 100 on May 21, was a Houston-based businessman, real estate developer and innovative philanthropist credited with developing fracking and horizontal drilling technology to profitably produce shale gas. He also insisted that oil and gas extraction be conducted responsibly. 

For decades, conventional wisdom dictated that there were no oil and gas resources in the areas south and west of the Permian Basin. I absorbed this assumption while growing up in Midland, the daughter of a petroleum engineer.

But after many years of working for Mitchell and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, I've learned that oil and gas development — and views of far West Texas energy — are anything but conventional. These resources always existed in the region; it was the technology to extract them that did not until Mitchell unlocked them.

Today, my father and Mitchell, who died within months of each other, would be surprised at the energy revolution in the Permian Basin. Permian production is 1 million barrels a day, and it could grow to 5 million in early 2020 and to 8 million barrels a day by 2023, according to Citigroup energy analyst Eric Lee. Texas Railroad Commission data shows that today there are 500 to 750 new drills per month in the Permian.

While reflecting on conventional wisdom and unconventional energy development, I've found myself thinking there might be oil and gas resources everywhere but inaccessible until the next generation of technology is created. If true, and if such resources were developed using current practices, what would the long-term impact be on Texas?

Mitchell insisted oil and gas developers respect conservation of natural resources on private land. He oversaw natural gas production on his own ranch, Cook's Branch Conservancy, in Montgomery County near The Woodlands, the new town he developed in the 1970s. He famously warned that if the production company "didn't do it right, I'd kick them out."

On my dad's ranch in the Panhandle, he refused to lease his land for hunting and would leave a field fallow if pheasants were nesting. He took us to every U.S. national park and taught us the joy of the natural world. He also worked with Robert O. Anderson to help mitigate environmental risk of oil development in Alaska. You'll recall that Anderson, at the time the largest landowner in Texas, donated his Texas ranch in 1988 to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to become the Big Bend Ranch State Park adjacent to the national park.

One of the charms of growing up in Midland was the opportunity to drive a few hours in any direction and end up somewhere of staggering natural beauty: North to Palo Duro Canyon State Park; west to Guadalupe National Park; or south to Big Bend National Park. Today, with oil and gas production facilities, pipelines, wind and solar farms and their transmission lines, the drive to Big Bend is far different than it was just a few years ago.

Mitchell, through his philanthropy and the Mitchell Foundation, urged us to address the impact of energy infrastructure development on our land and communities.

Unfortunately, Texas is the only energy-producing state without systematic laws, regulations or incentives to protect land resources and surface owners from damages caused by energy development.

The greater Big Bend region is one of the last great, wild places in the state and is worth the effort to protect it. In the absence of land protection policy, we need innovative approaches to land conservation in the face of energy development. These approaches should honor private property rights and ranching heritage, ensure that negative impacts on small communities are equally offset by benefits, and protect land resources for future Texans.

The Mitchell Foundation developed an initiative, Respect Big Bend, to work with industry, landowners, scientists and community leaders to conduct an inclusive and transparent landscape-scale energy development and land conservation planning effort. The goals are simple: protect, mitigate, restore and set a precedent, creating a model for energy development that transcends the status quo.

In areas where energy development is minimal, and few if any leases have been signed, we will work to establish a process that gives landowners and community members a voice in protecting their communities, land and water.

Where leases have already been signed, we will work with landowners and the energy industry to mitigate the impact of energy development on the communities, land and water of the region.

Where energy development has already taken hold, we will work with landowners and the energy industry to establish high standards for the restoration and enhancement of communities and land impacted by energy development.

Last, and maybe most important for the future of Texas and the application to other undeveloped areas, we will document our effort, both achievements and setbacks, so that others will benefit from what we learn in the greater Big Bend region.

The question is not if the greater Big Bend region should be tapped for its energy production; that is already in motion. The question is how do we produce energy in a way that protects our natural resources and communities? George Mitchell would urge us to look beyond convention to find real solutions.

Marilu Hastings is vice president of sustainability programs for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. She is a member of the Department of Energy's National Petroleum Council and the National Academy of Sciences' Roundtable on Science. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. 


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