04/30/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

Beyond the Fringe

Terry O'Sullivan, president of a labor union that supports construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, defames opponents of the project by labeling them an "environmental fringe." The labor union boss's use of the term is, to put it charitably, way off on the definition.

Do ranchers, farmers, and Native American tribes who consider the pipeline a serious pollution threat to their fresh water supplies qualify as members of a "fringe"? What about the estimated one-third to 40 percent of the American public who according to the latest polls, oppose the tar sand oil pipeline because of environmental degradation fears? Are all those people and their concerns about climate change, aquifer contamination, air pollution and public health to be dismissed as "fringe" phenomena? I don't think so.

Mr. O'Sullivan, you want fringe? I'll give you fringe. How about a rancher who denies the very existence of the United States government and its authority to uphold the law governing grazing on public lands or any other societal activity for that matter? What of individuals who claim that President Obama was really born in Kenya and is illegitimately occupying the White House? "Fringe" would seem an appropriate description for those who maintain that the September 11th attack on New York City's World Trade Center was secretly engineered by President Bush and/or the CIA. What of those civilians who are arming to resist an imminent military takeover by the federal government? And let us not leave out individuals who insist alien space craft are circling the earth and sending emissaries to the surface to infiltrate the human race.

I'm not suggesting, Mr. O'Sullivan, that the "environmental fringe" doesn't exist. You would have been right on target if you had identified those who assert the environmental movement is a thinly disguised front for turning the nation into a socialist camp.

The lesson, Mr. O'Sullivan, for you and the Laborers' International Union of North American that you head, is to dial back the extremist rhetoric and snap judgments when there are legitimate disputes. Instead, examine the opposing arguments through the crucible of equity, logic, fact-checking, and when available, scientific analysis. That done, let the chips fall where they may.

A fringe element of society consists of a relative handful of individuals espousing wildly irrational ideas. While this writer believes foes of the pipeline have the strongest case by far, sufficient public support and debatable claims exist on both sides to exclude the utterance of "fringe" from entering the conversation.