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A former national security adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama gave a ringing endorsement to the Keystone XL pipeline on Thursday, saying a rejection would strengthen the hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the standoff over Ukraine.

At a Senate committee hearing in Washington, retired Marine Corps general Jim Jones – who served for 20 months as Mr. Obama's first security adviser – argued the United States must develop North American resources to provide a strategic check on countries such as Russia, which, he said, use their vast energy wealth as a weapon on the international stage.

"The decision on the pipeline is a litmus test of whether America is serious about national, regional and global energy security, and the world is watching," he said.

"If we want to make Mr. Putin's day and strengthen his hand, we should reject the Keystone. If we want to gain an important measure of national energy security, jobs, tax revenue and prosperity to advance our work on the spectrum of energy solutions that don't rely on carbon, it should be approved."

Mr. Jones has long been on record as favouring TransCanada Corp.'s proposed pipeline, and has served as a fellow with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, which supports the project.

His geopolitical argument echoes comments made by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver in Houston last week. The minister said Canada is emerging as a 21st-century energy superpower whose bounty of oil and natural gas would provide greater security not only to North America but also the world.

Environmentalists argued Thursday that North American energy security cannot be achieved by dramatically expanding carbon-intensive sources of energy such as Canada's oil sands. Their essential argument is that climate change represents a greater scourge than Mr. Putin.

In an environmental impact statement released in January, the U.S. State Department concluded that approving the Keystone XL pipeline would not result in greater production from the oil sands, because the crude will find a way to market with or without the project. As a result, it said the project would not significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions – a key criterion laid down by Mr. Obama.

At the Senate hearing, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune dismissed the State Department conclusion, saying analysts never assessed whether the construction of the pipeline was consistent with the U.S. goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2 C above preindustrial levels. To meet that goal, he argued production from the oil sands and other carbon-intensive sources must be reduced, not expanded.

"The Keystone XL pipeline is not compatible with a climate-safe world," Mr. Brune said.