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George Mitchell, known as father of fracking

HOUSTON -- Billionaire Texas oilman, developer and philanthropist George P. Mitchell, considered the father of fracking, died yesterday at his home in Galveston, his family said. He was 94.

Mitchell, the son of a Greek immigrant who ran a dry cleaners in Galveston, became one of the wealthiest men in the United States. His dogged pursuit of natural gas he and others knew was trapped in wide, thin layers of rock deep underground brought a new -- and enormous -- trove of oil and gas within reach.

His technological breakthrough led to a revolution in oil and gas production in the United States, and one that is expected to migrate around the world.

For the entire oil and gas age, drillers had searched for hydrocarbons that had seeped out of layers of sedimentary rock over millions of years and collected into large pools. Once found, they were easy to produce.

These pools are exceedingly rare, though, and they were quickly being tapped out as the world's consumption grew.

Mitchell's idea: Go directly to the sedimentary rock holding the oil and gas, essentially speeding up geological processes by thousands of millennia.

He figured out how to drill into and then along layers of gas-laden rock, then force a slurry of water, sand and chemicals under pressure into the rock to crack it open and release the hydrocarbons.

This process, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, is now-common industry practice known generally as fracking.

Engineers after Mitchell learned to adapt the process to oil-bearing rock. The United States is now the world's largest producer of natural gas and is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest oil producer by the end of the decade, according to the International Energy Agency.

The fracking boom sent natural gas prices plummeting, reducing energy costs for U.S. consumers and businesses. And by boosting U.S. oil production, it has sharply reduced oil imports.

It has led to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and emissions of toxic chemicals such as mercury by replacing coal in electric power generation.

At the same time, some environmentalists worry the fracking process or the disposal of fracking wastewater can leak into drinking water supplies and contaminate them.

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