By Sam Easter

Kathleen Neset started off Wednesday's remarks at UND's Center for Innovation—made to more than a dozen guests—by making it clear exactly what kind of role the North Dakota's energy industry now plays.

"We are playing in the big leagues here," she said. "This is the real deal here in North Dakota, and it's very important what we do working together throughout this state."

Neset, a drilling and geology consultant from Tioga, N.D., appeared on UND's campus alongside Rob Lindberg, an industry expert and the director of Bakken Backers, a group whose website describes it as a "coalition" of supporters of Bakken development.

The two gave presentations that portrayed oil drilling and pipeline development as a safe operation and suggested that North Dakota's energy industry is a key to its future.

"It's been a boon. It's dipped only a little in its opportunity, and it's still here in large force," Lindberg told the Herald after the presentation, pointing out that it should grow significantly in the next 15 to 20 years. "And that's what we forget."

Perhaps the most hot-button issue that the two discussed was the Dakota Access Pipeline, a controversial, 1,200-mile link between the Bakken region and south-central Illinois. The project has been a flashpoint for its proximity to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and its crossing of a portion of the Missouri River.

"A small accident will never hit that lake," Lindberg said, arguing that the pipeline is far underground and has technological assets—like a double-lining and moisture sensors—to protect against leaks.

Lindberg gave attendees reason to stay optimistic about the industry's future in North Dakota. Despite the downturn in oil prices that's rocked the state budget, the oil industry is still a key part of the state's future, and one that's expected to grow. Increased oil infrastructure is poised to bring and keep tens of thousand of oil production jobs in the state—even if growth projections fall short.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Republican from Grand Forks, said he's pleased to see such an optimistic outlook for the industry—especially given state revenue's dependence upon it—and added a few words on the protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline.

"I think the folks who actually live there have concerns and have been expressing it," he said. "I don't think it's helpful at all to have hundreds of people come in from out of state whose agenda is much broader than (the pipeline). ... It becomes a poster child for anti-fossil fuels."

Holmberg made clear that he supports construction.

"They have met the requirements, they have the permits. Build, baby, build."