By Anna Driver
HOUSTON (Reuters) - George Phydias Mitchell, a petroleum engineer who transformed the natural gas industry by using hydraulic fracturing to pull the fuel out of shale formations, died of natural causes at the age of 94 on Friday.
A native of Galveston, Texas, who rose from modest means to become a billionaire philanthropist, he was the chairman and chief executive officer of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp, which was sold to Devon Energy Corp for $3.5 billion in 2002.
His death was announced on the website of his foundation.
Born in 1919, he rose to become a successful wildcatter - a person who drills exploratory wells in areas not known to hold oil - after being raised by a father he described as a hardscrabble gambler and small-time entrepreneur. His parents were Greek immigrants.
Mitchell drilled for natural gas in a rock formation known as the Barnett Shale in north Texas where the first successful application of hydraulic fracturing, also referred to as fracking, resulted in the viable production of natural gas.
Fracking, in which sand, water and other fluids are blasted into rock formations at high pressure to unlock trapped oil and gas, has vastly changed the U.S. energy supply outlook. The rapid growth in crude production from shale has led to some to predict North America could be energy independent by the end of this decade. The practice has drawn criticism from environmentalists who fear the chemicals used to crack the rock can harm the environment.
Mitchell worked on the technology for 17 years and suffered numerous setbacks before it became commercially viable when he was nearly 80.
"George Mitchell was a true visionary and a pioneer," said Larry Nichols, the executive chairman of Devon Energy and a friend of Mitchell's. "He leaves a legacy that is spreading worldwide - one that for decades to come will be known as the shale revolution."
Mike Yeager, the former CEO of BHP Billiton Petroleum said all of the oil and gas from shale now being produced in the United States "comes from the work of George Mitchell."
Mitchell, a veteran of World War II, was also a real estate developer.
In 1974 he created the Woodlands, a 25,000-acre forested community filled with parks and a 1.4 mile long manmade canal, located about 30 miles north of Houston.
The Woodlands now has a population of more than 100,000 and is home to corporations including Anadarko Petroleum Corp. The world's largest publicly traded oil company, Exxon Mobil Corp, is building a 385-acre campus in the area to accommodate 10,000 employees.
Mitchell, whose wealth was estimated at $2 billion by Forbes, supported a number of causes ranging from the arts to educational initiatives and worked to promote the sustainability of natural gas through his Texas-based foundation.
He raised 10 children with his wife Cynthia Woods Mitchell who died in 2009. In 2011, Mitchell signed the Giving Pledge sponsored by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, making public his intent that the majority of wealth should be donated to charitable causes.
(Additional reporting by Kristen Hays in Houston; Editing by Terry Wade, Alden Bentley and Tim Dobbyn)