"Moffett parlayed a geology degree into fast riches as he showed an affinity for finding oil and natural gas in Louisiana. Oilmen such as William “Tex” Moncrief Jr. and the late T. Boone Pickens Jr. recognized him as one of America’s great wildcatters, now a rare breed."
Wall Street Journal / Jan 11, 2021
James “Jim Bob” Moffett, an oil wildcatter turned mining prospector who helped buildFreeport-McMoRan Inc. into a natural-resources giant, has died at age 82.
Mr. Moffett died on Friday night in Austin, Texas. His health had declined in recent years, and he had contracted Covid-19, according to his older son, James R. “Bubba” Moffett Jr.
A former football player at the University of Texas, Mr. Moffett parlayed a geology degree into fast riches as he showed an affinity for finding oil and natural gas in Louisiana. Oilmen such as William “Tex” Moncrief Jr. and the late T. Boone Pickens Jr. recognized him as one of America’s great wildcatters, now a rare breed.
But his biggest success came as a minerals prospector in 1988, with the discovery of vast deposits of gold and copper at Freeport’s Grasberg mine in Indonesia, which became the world’s largest and most profitable gold mine.
A larger-than-life personality, Mr. Moffett was fond of impersonating Elvis Presley, framing things in football terminology and tipping golf caddies, barbers and waiters with crisp $100 bills. Mr. Moffett was also a shrewd negotiator, with an eye for detail and no small supply of ambition. In making strategic decisions, Mr. Moffett said he listened most of all to his intuition.
“When I walk into a conference room with lawyers and accountants, and they’ll say to me, ‘You know, no one has done this before,’ that doesn’t stop me,” Mr. Moffett said in a 1995 interview with Louisiana Public Broadcasting. “If you’re confident in what you’re doing, what difference does it make that it has not been done before?”
His take-no-prisoners approach made him enemies, including environmentalists, who railed against Freeport’s mining operations when Mr. Moffett was at the company’s helm. In 2006, Norway’s Ministry of Finance excluded Freeport from the world’s largest sovereign-wealth fund, saying its waste-management practices at some mines were “inflicting extensive and serious damage on the environment.”
He forged a reputation as a generous boss but also a demanding one. Mr. Moffett would sometimes call his real-estate lieutenant Beau Armstrong in the middle of the night from Indonesia and ask him to run around the room so he would be awake enough to brief him on the week’s business.
“He instilled this confidence,” Mr. Armstrong recalled.
James R. Moffett was born in Louisiana in 1938 and raised in Houston by a single mother. He worked odd jobs as a youngster to help support his family before attending the University of Texas on a football scholarship, where he played for legendary coach Darrell Royal.
He then worked for an oil company in New Orleans, while he took night classes for his master’s in geology at Tulane University. In 1969, he co-founded McMoRan Oil & Gas Co. with two associates.
In 1981, Mr. Moffett led McMoRan in a merger with New York-based sulfur company Freeport Minerals Co. The company made its huge gold strike in Indonesia in 1988 after Mr. Moffett commissioned core drilling in an undeveloped region near an older copper well where he suspected—based on his knowledge of petroleum geology—ore deposits must rest.
“When copper is your primary product, but you find the largest gold mine in the world, you think, ‘This will work,’ ” said William Cunningham, a former president of the University of Texas at Austin who served on Freeport’s board in the 1980s and 1990s.
Shortly after the find, Mr. Cunningham recalled, Mr. Moffett, who loved to sing, emerged clad as Mr. Presley in white, studded attire and provided the evening’s entertainment at a dinner in Indonesia.
“And he was pretty good,” Mr. Cunningham said.
Mr. Moffett’s stature grew when Freeport purchased copper producer Phelps Dodge Corp. for nearly $26 billion in 2007, then the largest-ever mining acquisition.
But the wildcatter’s luck went south when he brought Freeport back into oil and gas, years after it had spun off the McMoRan oil business. As chief executive of McMoRan Exploration Co. in 2010, Mr. Moffett had, to great fanfare, announced an enormous natural-gas discovery in the shallow waters off the coast of Louisiana.
Two years later, at a time McMoRan’s shares had plunged after it had spent hundreds of millions trying to develop offshore wells, Freeport agreed to buy the portion of McMoRan it didn’t already own for $2.1 billion in cash. It also purchased Plains Exploration & Production Co. for a combined total of about $9 billion.
The deal, aimed at diversifying the company and taking advantage of high oil prices, drew backlash for straying from mining and running up debt. After the company spent billions but ended up with dry holes and energy prices collapsed, activist Carl Icahn bought a stake in Freeport and successfully pushed for Freeport to simplify its business and add his nominees to the board.
In late 2015, shortly after Freeport said it would defer some oil and gas projects and explore the sale of related assets, Mr. Moffett announced his resignation at age 77. He continued to serve for years as chairman emeritus of Freeport, which in 2020 was the third-largest U.S. mining and metals company by market capitalization, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Mr. Moffett is survived by his second wife, Lauree Moffett, along with four children and six grandchildren. An earlier marriage, to the former Louise Hohmann, his high-school sweetheart, ended in divorce.
As Mr. Moffett looked to be in his last hours Friday, nurses played Elvis music for him, James Moffett Jr. said.
unfortunately, the world doesn't make them like that anymore. Rest in Peace, Jim Bob.