Guest Commentary: Mitchell didn’t change the world all by himself

By Jim Marston

Last month’s passing of George Mitchell, Texas energy icon and father of the nation’s first planned sustainable community, The Woodlands, provided a poignant reminder of the impact that one smart, talented and determined entrepreneur can make on his industry, community and country. It was also a reminder that even brilliant, renegade wildcatters who change the world often do so with help from the government.

Mitchell lived the classic American tale. He was the son of a Greek immigrant who provided for his family with a shoe shine business. He was a brilliant engineer who helped pioneer energy exploration. He was doggedly determined, often taking remarkable risks when others in his industry refused. And he reaped huge financial returns on those risks, becoming one of the most iconic American energy billionaires.

Through their foundation and other philanthropic endeavors, he and his wife, Cynthia, were remarkably generous with their wealth. They gave millions to causes – including the Environmental Defense Fund - in their hometown, across Texas and nationally.

Without question, Mitchell changed the world. But contrary to how some anti-government leaders in Washington think industry works, he didn’t change it alone. The federal government helped. Mitchell would no doubt have been a successful businessman without a lick of government support – but his two most iconic legacies were direct results of government-supported initiatives and funding.

The Woodlands, his master-developed community north of Houston, was launched with a $50 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-backed loan. Today, the community is home to around 100,000 people, all of whom might have a different hometown if not for what some in Washington and Texas would now call a government handout.

Perhaps he could have spent his personal fortune experimenting with a new natural gas exploration method called “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking.” But 20 years ago, Mitchell didn’t yet have the $3 billion his gas business would eventually earn. So in addition to his and his investors’ capital, he used federal tax credits and research funding for what, at the time, would surely have been categorized as “alternative energy.”

There are many other George Mitchells out there today. Men and women with great ideas that some people would consider long shots, but that might someday change the energy industry. In fact, one of the reasons Mitchell relied on government research funding for his work was because no one in the gas industry was willing to bet on his long shot.

Why is it that the very kind of research and investments that made George Mitchell a visionary and an energy legend are now vilified as frivolous handouts?

Past generations of leaders - Democrats and Republicans alike – recognized that the government has a role in nurturing and advancing innovative American ideas that could have a lasting, positive effect on our country’s economy and the whole of society. Too many politicians in Washington have become shortsighted and forgotten the long-term, resonating impact that basic government research can have on private industry. Landmark innovations we couldn’t have imagined in the past, like GPS and the Internet, were a product of government-funded research. Where would the economy be without these innovations?

Today, it’s hard for politicians to see beyond the next fundraiser, campaign rally or election. Too often, they play to the ideologues and condemn the specter of “big government” without considering our history – or our future.

The nation’s innovators know that persistence is the only way to overcome the challenges facing the nation. I think George Mitchell would agree that government should be an ally to America’s fledgling energy innovators. It took decades of investment and perseverance to transform shale drilling from “alternative energy” to a game changer in the international energy landscape. If we don’t invest in clean energy now, we risk falling behind for good.

James D. Marston is vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund’s U.S. Climate and Energy Program.

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