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Unexpected Energy Future

I turned 18 the same year of the Arab oil embargo. Oil prices went way up and we thought the age of inexpensive energy was gone forever. What an unexpected change! The technology of fracking today has essentially created new energy that will last my lifetime and that of my children. And the natural gas is much cleaner than the coal or oil it replaces, a gift from God, with an assist from a stubborn American.

George Mitchell graduated from the Texas A&M as a petroleum engineer. His father was an illiterate Greek goat herder who had the good sense to move to America. George was so poor that he was almost kicked out of school for non-payment of tuition. One of his professors told him that if he wanted to drive a Chevy, he should work for Humble Oil (later Exxon) but if he wanted to drive a Cadillac, he should go into business for himself. George saw himself as more a Cadillac type of guy.

In 1982, Mitchell Energy was in danger of not having enough gas to supply its clients. In those days, experts thought gas would soon run out. Mitchell looked for new sources. He knew there was a lot of gas trapped in the Barrett shale in Texas, but nobody could get it out at a price anybody could pay. He invested $6million and had to put up with twenty years of ridicule from his friends for throwing money away on something that would not work.

It wasn't until 1998 that Mitchell came up with a permutation of hydraulic fracturing that worked. (Fracking was not a new technology; it just had not been applied in this particular way before.) The way was open to the bright, happy future we now see before us.
Mitchell lived to see his dream work. He is still alive, now 93 years old.

You never know what's going to work. Mitchell could have ended up wrong and ridiculed, as many dreamers do. Most big ideas fail. That is why we need lots of options and try lots of things.

Of course, this is not the work of only one man. Lots of researchers, investors and workers were involved. (BTW - Mitchell "gave back" contributing $44.5 million to A&M and $159 million to universities and research organizations.) Government provided incentives to unconventional energy. But I wonder if it would have happened w/o Mitchell. There is no such thing as destiny. Things do not have to happen the way they do. Fracking could have remained a "stupid and impractical" idea. That is what most experts thought at the time.

After the fact lots of things look obvious, but they could have gone other ways. There are myriad examples of people sitting on great opportunities w/o using them, ever. So thank you George. Well done.

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In my opinion, the problem with natural gas is that although it is cleaner and safer than coal, it still releases far too much CO2 and there is a high accident rate.

My preference is for nuclear power, which has no CO2 output and a very much better safety record. The obvious problem is the high capital cost, although once built nuclear is cheap to run and prices do not fluctuate as gas prices do.

There are some good new designs for fission power stations, but the US seems reluctant to build them.

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