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President Barack Obama walks into the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, to make a statement on the Keystone XL pipeline. The president announced he's rejecting the pipeline because he does not believe it serves the national interest.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press

Rejecting Keystone XL was not about Canada.

It was about U.S. President Barack Obama's legacy and his credibility. The President has decided that global warming poses an existential threat. And so, for Mr. Obama to head to Paris next month seeking to save the planet after giving the go-ahead to an $8-billion pipeline that has come to symbolize Big Oil digging up some of the world's most carbon-laden fossil fuel would have looked like hypocrisy.

The President's ability to "make the case to other countries around the world that they [must] reduce carbon pollution would be undermined," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said hours after Mr. Obama rejected TransCanada Corp.'s controversial proposal to funnel upward of one million barrels a day across the U.S. heartland to Gulf Coast ports.

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Keystone XL had, as the President admitted, become a test of his credibility in taking action to combat global warming, a dividing line in the bitter domestic debate over energy priorities.

It was not just a pipeline, Mr. Obama conceded.

"For years, the Keystone pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse," the President said as he vowed it would not be built on his watch. "It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter. And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others."

In the end, it was only marginally relevant that oil prices had tanked, that oil sands expansion may be doomed by the market, that U.S. oil production has soared so much that Congress is considering lifting the crude export ban and that the pro-pipeline Conservative government in Canada had not managed, for years, to get any pipeline built to tidewater either.

What really mattered was that Mr. Obama could not tell other countries – big emitters, such as India, China and Russia – that the United States would lead in cutting emissions and expect them to follow if the President approved Keystone XL.

Approving the project would "incentivize the extraction of some of the dirtiest oil on the planet and … undermine the case" for urgently cutting carbon emissions, Mr. Earnest said.

North of the border, Mr. Obama's decision will be seen through a Canadian lens: that it was a rebuke of former prime minister Stephen Harper's dismissive suggestion that approval was "a no-brainer," or that the President should value Canada as a friend, ally, neighbour and reliable supplier of energy, both from fossil fuels and clean hydro-power.

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But neither the outcome of the decision, nor its timing, had as much to do with Canada as Canadians might think.

Mr. Obama repeatedly delayed deciding on Keystone because it was politically expedient to do so – for his own re-election efforts in 2012 and for embattled Democrat senators in 2014. Then, the decision was held up, first by a legal challenge in Nebraska and later to avoid the appearance of interfering in the Canadian election. But with the Paris climate-change conference looming, it was in Mr. Obama's interest to reject Keystone XL and to announce that rejection.

It was U.S. politics and the President's view of his international leadership role, not anything happening in Canada, that led to Friday's timing.

"Approving this project would have undercut" U.S. leadership, Mr. Obama said, meaning his own.

The President has made clear that battling global warming is a priority for his remaining 14 months in office. "The biggest risk we face is not acting," he said, speaking from the White House with a degree of ceremony never before seen for what amounted to rejecting an application for a presidential permit for a pipeline to cross an international border.

"Today, we're continuing to lead by example. Because ultimately, if we're going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky."

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Whether Canada's oil sands will remain buried and unburned because Mr. Obama spiked Keystone XL will not be known for decades.

By rejecting Keystone XL, Mr. Obama showed he "wasn't just talking the talk, he was walking the walk," Mr. Earnest, the White House spokesman, said.

Mr. Obama's critics said he was just pandering to environmentalists.

The "decision isn't surprising, but it is sickening," said Paul Ryan, the newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives and the most powerful Republican in Washington. "He is rejecting our largest trading partner and energy supplier. He is rejecting the will of the American people and a bipartisan majority of the Congress."

Mr. Obama believes he has loftier goals: "I look forward to joining my fellow world leaders in Paris," to "protect the one planet that we've got while we still can."

Mr. Obama said he would pursue that goal "as long as I am President."

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Only 422 days remain, and Keystone XL proponents, in the United States and Canada are counting.

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