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U.S. President Barack Obama on Aug. 6, 2013.LARRY DOWNING/Reuters

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The first time a U.S. president put solar panels on the White House roof to show off his green credentials American voters soon tossed him out of the Oval Office.

That was Jimmy Carter who also installed a wood-burning stove in the East Wing and – bundled up in a cardigan – told Americans in a nationwide address to turn down their thermostats to help reduce dependence on oil supplies from hostile or unstable regimes. It was, Mr. Carter said, "the moral equivalent of war." Months later, he was gone and Ronald Reagan was president. The last Cold Warrior quickly had the solar panels ripped off the roof.

More than three decades later, President Barack Obama has put new and more powerful solar panels on the White House roof. This time the messaging is slightly different but no less apocalyptic. Climate change driven by burning fossil fuels poses a grave threat and, he says, "the question is not whether we need to act, but whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late."

Keystone opponents hailed the solar panels as the latest signal that Mr. Obama will reject the Canadian scheme to funnel upwards of one million barrels daily from Alberta to tidewater refineries on the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coast.

"There is simply no good-faith way that the president could put a pair of solar panels on his roof and then run a major tar sands pipeline through America's backyard," wrote Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org, one of the major environmental activist groups spearheading the fight against Keystone XL. "I'm willing to be cynical about politicians, but that sort of blatant greenwashing would be the height of hypocrisy."

Or maybe just slick politics, at which Mr. Obama is very, very good.

Consider that the president's clearest statement was actually the studiously ambiguous vow that he will approve the $5.3-billion Keystone XL "only if this pipeline does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem."

Opponents heard a death knell for the long-delayed and controversial project that is crucial to any massive expansion of Canada's vast oil sands by providing a vital outlet to world markets (and prices) for the landlocked (and now heavily discounted) reserves, but Keystone's proponents heard something different – a no-so-subtle poke by the president that Canada should clean up its act so Mr. Obama could give Keystone the green light with a straight face.

"That could be a signal that the administration would welcome a concrete plan from the Canadians about how to reduce the carbon intensity of the oil sands crude," Elliot Diringer, a former senior White House aide during the Clinton administration told Politico after Mr. Obama's was interviewed by The New York Times on Keystone XL. Mr. Diringer, now executive vice-president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has long advocated a range of solutions to climate-change both inside and outside government. He said the president's words "almost sounded like an invitation to the Canadians to offer concrete commitments to make their oil no more carbon-intensive than conventional crude, like he was asking the Canadians to help him find his way to yes."

From Ottawa that will mean far more than Prime Minister Stephen Harper blithely claiming the Keystone decision is so obvious as to make it a "no-brainer" or his ministers endlessly trumpeting that Alberta's heavy oil sands crude are no filthier than Venezuela's.

Perhaps unfairly, the Keystone XL has become a decision far larger than the fate of the project.

If Mr. Obama blesses the project it won't be because of jobs or because Ottawa has tried to sell the pipeline as an easy way to create jobs while buying oil from a reliable, friendly, neighbour. The president has already dismissed job creation as an inconsequential "blip" and pointed out a grim irony that Keystone XL might actually jack up gas prices for some Americans by relieving a crude glut in the Midwest. Nor will Canadian finger-pointing about America's heavy reliance on far-dirtier coal help the President if he needs to defend a Keystone XL approval.

"There is no doubt that Canada at the source in those tar sands could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release," Mr. Obama said.

In other words, the Canadian and Harper government need to provide some serious political cover in the form of demonstrable progress on reducing carbon. And time is running out.

Anti-Keystone XL activists are planned a nationwide "Day of Action" on September 21. So far a truly significant groundswell of opposition has failed to materialize and polls continue to show a majority of Americans back the project. But Mr. Obama is likely more concerned about two different constituencies: the activist Democrat base crucial to the party's mid-term elections fortunes next year and the greenness of his legacy. That will need more than a couple of solar panels on the White House roof.

Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.

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