"There's places in West Texas you could have a 5.2 earthquake and it wouldn't bother anyone," he said. "If you're going to operate in urban areas, I think you need to invest in incredibly stringent regulations. But in other areas, you probably don't."
WVU chief of staff Jay Cole said the university has a special obligation to help industry and government identify critical issues as shale-gas development grows and to identify questions that remain to be answered.
The workshop features representatives of industry and government, including the National Energy Technology Laboratory, U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as researchers from 12 universities.
Ray Boswell, technology manager for natural gas technology programs at Morgantown's national lab, said drillers tapping the Marcellus are producing more gas even as they sink fewer wells and are outpacing production estimates made by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The region's reserves, he said, can easily sustain strong production through 2040.
Joseph Frantz, vice president of engineering for Texas-based oil and gas producer Range Resources, said technology is allowing drillers to create more-efficient operations on smaller physical footprints.
Deep horizontal wells today disturb only 1 percent of the surface on a 1,000-acre site, he said, compared with 19 percent disruption with conventional vertical wells set 1,000 feet apart.
Frantz said drillers in the Appalachian basin are producing nearly 12 billion cubic feet of oil and gas per day from the Marcellus, a figure that has skyrocketed since 2009 as drillers rapidly embrace and deploy technology developed in the nation's other shale-gas fields.
Range and other companies are casing their wells with as many as four layers of steel and cement, redundancies that Frantz said dramatically reduce any risk of groundwater contamination. Range is also using rubber containment pads and berms under every piece of equipment to stop pollution from soaking into the ground or migrating offsite, he said.
It's an expensive way to do business, Frantz said, but "this is the right thing to do."
"We talk about this social license to operate," he said. "We always have to be transparent and honest and open with everybody. ... If we don't do our job, someone's going to come in and tell us how it should be done, and that may not be a pleasant day."