In 2002, Hawking met the oil baron George P. Mitchell and began a decadelong relationship that ended only when the magnate died in 2013. “He’s basically the guy who invented fracking,” says Hawking’s collaborator Andrew Strominger. “So he set up these two-, three-week retreats — he was a huge fan of Stephen — which were basically designed to create an environment where Stephen can work.”
Mitchell didn’t invent fracking but adopted the technology – appropriately fine-tuned and combined with horizontal drilling – to produce natural gas from shale formations. In a sense, he was the opposite of the ideal theoretical physicist: Mitchell spent decades solving a complicated practical problem by trial and error, adjusting mature and emerging technologies to fit his purpose.
Hydraulic fracturing was first used commercially in 1949, two years before Mitchell Energy drilled its first well. That well was called D.J. Hughes #1 and produced natural gas at a commercially viable rate. However, it did not yet produce directly from the underlying Barnett Shale:
At this time, he was drilling into shallow sandstone that had natural fractures. He began using a new technique known as hydraulic fracturing, which was first used commercially only a few years earlier, in order to create new cracks in the sandstone that enabled the natural gas to escape. The natural gas he was recovering was essentially the gas that had escaped and migrated up from the Barnett Shale. Tremendous amounts remained trapped deep underneath, but there was no known way of getting the natural gas out of the deep shale rock.
For decades, Mitchell and his associates tried to tap into the gas resources trapped in the Barnett Shale itself. Their efforts only met success when they started fracking horizontal wells, laying the foundation for the shale boom in North America:
In the 1980s, Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. began experimenting with hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells in the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth.
The key to success, according to Nissa Darbonne’s account in The American Shales, was the light-sand frack (LSF), which used much less proppant (sand, specifically) than the typical frac job practiced by the oil and gas industry at that time. It seemed counter-intuitive to use so little proppant to try and fracture a super-tight formation like Barnett, and the decision to go for the LSF was largely driven by its economics: it was relatively cheap while natural gas prices were low. But it worked better in the Barnett than the massive fracs en vogue elsewhere.
In August 2001, it was announced that Devon Energy would by Mitchell Energy for $3.1 billion in cash and stock and would take over its debt of $400 million. George Mitchell, 82, owned 46% of Mitchell Energy at the time of the announcement. He would no longer play an executive role in the oil and gas business. That’s when he met Hawking and set out to help him.