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Measuring Mitchell’s legacy

Hydraulic fracturing pioneer George Mitchell was laid to rest last month. Most of the various tributes and obituaries about the legendary Texas businessman note he was worth roughly $2 billion when he died.

That’s an extraordinary amount of money – enough to land him on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans last year.

But it pales in comparison to the amount of new wealth that is created every year as a direct consequence of the shale energy revolution that George Mitchell helped bring into existence.

According to a study from McKinsey & Company, by 2020 the value to the economy of shale energy production will be between $380 billion and $690 billion per year.  This amounts to an annual GDP boost of 2-4 percent. The consulting firm IHS has issued similar projections.

In 2012 alone, new supplies of shale energy helped generate an additional $74 billion in government revenues, attracted U.S. capital investments of $121 billion, and supported $150 billion in earnings for U.S. workers.

That’s quite a bargain for society.

Now, fairness dictates I point out that George Mitchell didn’t invent hydraulic fracturing or directional drilling – the two technologies that, when combined, have unleashed the surge in oil and natural gas production  the United States has experienced over the last half decade. And there is no question that the “shale gale” has any number of fathers in addition to George Mitchell.

But Mitchell was among the first to find success combining directional drilling onshore with what’s become popularly known as fracking. This innovation will benefit the American economy and strengthen our energy security for decades to come.

As energy analyst Amy Myers Jaffe noted, “With leadership and tenacity, George Mitchell, in my opinion, will go in the history books with Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, and even Alexander Graham Bell, as a great American, who changed the course of our history through invention and genius.”

That’s impressive company, but Mitchell certainly deserves his place in that pantheon of visionaries. His entrepreneurial spirit and innovations helped make him a rich man. More importantly, and to a far greater degree, they enriched society as well.

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