Op-Ed: The credible case for George P. Mitchell’s version of a Mitchell Plan

Former Energy Secretary and Texas governor Rick Perry argued in a recent op-ed in The Hill (“Europe needs a Mitchell Plan, not a Marshall Plan,” April 1, 2022) that a so-called “Mitchell Plan” was necessary to ensure energy security for Europe. This as opposed to the Marshall Plan approach suggested to President Biden by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon on March 22.

The Austin-based Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation (CGMF), George P. Mitchell’s primary philanthropic endeavor, agrees with many of the points made by Perry, most notably his emphasis on improving trade arrangements, permitting efficiency that aligns with production declines, and the need for the energy industry to position itself to attract additional capital investment.

Mitchell gets the credit for pioneering the economic extraction of shale gas. Undoubtedly, this technology will play an essential role in securing Europe’s future. And although many of Perry’s points are valid, his version of a Mitchell Plan only captures a portion of the Mitchell perspective in practice. A comprehensive Mitchell Plan would include solutions to the problems outlined by Perry plus an appropriate and critical role for government, including smart regulations.

Perry states his Mitchell Plan should create “unhindered markets” to achieve the goals shared by the U.S. and European Commission announced on March 25, 2022. However, George Mitchell would not have supported such unfettered markets described by Perry.

Mitchell was keenly aware that meeting the current global energy needs of all people—which we have yet to achieve—was not enough. He thought primarily about meeting the needs of future generations in a way that protected natural resources and communities.

We know we must plan and implement a sustainable energy future to fuel an almost doubling of the world’s economy in 30 years while protecting the climate and national security and tomorrow’s generations and natural resources. Combining that daunting task with the emerging energy security situation in Europe, we begin to realize that a strictly free-market approach recommended by Secretary Perry is not adequate.

Unincumbered, unregulated markets fail in several ways. Namely, they create negative externalities, lack capital investment for technology R&D, and lead to disproportionate impacts on marginalized communities. We recommend a Mitchell Plan worthy of its namesake that addresses these flaws.

In January 2012, Mitchell admonished his foundation board and staff to establish a philanthropic program to explore and promote a system of principled governance to prevent net-negative social and environmental externalities of energy development and distribution.

Today’s complex issues—scaling from global greenhouse gas emissions to country-level energy security to local community impairment—require a more sophisticated governance approach.

CGMF is confident we know where governance can be improved, particularly through our work with the Aspen Institute, which resulted in its report Principled Governance of Shale Resources.

Regulators need access to timely, objective, and rigorous research into energy development impacts and technologies that minimize these impacts. Researchers, in turn, should answer real-world questions regulators are asking and the public demanding.

A Mitchell Plan would establish a platform for creating respectful, sustained, and dynamic engagement between industry, public officials, and scientists to address the management of impacts and co-produce solutions. This intentional collaboration would result in continual, adaptive improvements to the regulatory process and decisions.

Mitchell’s innovations benefited from earlier research funded by the Department of Energy. Government funding is often required to support incremental improvement in technology, leading to breakthrough innovations. Unfortunately, private investment has little incentive or capacity to take the associated risks with such unproven technologies.

The Biden Administration’s Department of Energy investment to spur innovation in hydrogen, carbon capture and utilization, and battery storage is the kind of government investment that drives future advanced energy innovation. A Mitchell Plan would include this and more to fill the research and development gaps ignored by free markets.

Mitchell was committed to improving the well-being of all segments of society. In context, where we see unequal impacts, some—such as individual landowners, corporate executives, and shareholders—benefit from energy development, while others—like fenceline communities, rural residents, and economically disadvantaged people—bear the brunt of adverse impacts due to market failure.

It is difficult to imagine market solutions addressing this unequal distribution of negative impacts. Thus the Mitchell Plan would include a strategic role for government. It would recommend a dynamic structure for effective, early engagement between all stakeholders interested in and affected by energy development and distribution—positively and negatively—to address issues, discuss the management of potential risks and benefits, and hopefully avert conflict and injustice.

We must continue to move toward a robust and sustainable energy system— a model that supports environmental protection, social equity, and energy security. And a solid foundation of science, collaboration, and “contrary” thinking is necessary—elements that formed the pragmatic yet original approach of Mitchell.

The world needs George P. Mitchell’s version of a Mitchell Plan.

Marilu Hastings is executive vice president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. She also directs the Mitchell Innovation Lab, serves as a member of the National Petroleum Council at the U.S. Department of Energy, chair of the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute advisory board, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability.

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