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Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he delivers his first foreign policy speech, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, in Old Cabel Hall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Kerry said the greatest challenge to U.S. foreign policy is not emerging China or Middle East instability. It's Congress.Steve Helber/The Associated Press

In yet another potentially ominous sign for TransCanada PipeLines Ltd.'s Keystone XL pipeline, John Kerry has used his first major address as U.S. Secretary of State to make an urgent call for comprehensive action on climate change.

"We as a nation must have the foresight and courage to make the investments necessary to safeguard the most sacred trust we keep for our children and grandchildren: an environment not ravaged by rising seas, deadly superstorms, devastating droughts, and the other hallmarks of a dramatically changing climate," Mr. Kerry said on Wednesday in a wide-ranging speech at the University of Virginia.

"If we waste this opportunity, it may be the only thing our generation — generations — are remembered for. We need to find the courage to leave a far different legacy."

While Mr. Kerry made no mention of Keystone XL, his department will soon decide the fate of the $7-billion (U.S.) pipeline, which would cross an international border.

Keystone XL, which would carry bitumen from Alberta's carbon-intensive oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast, is considered a symbol of "dirty oil" by U.S. environmentalists. They're stepping up their efforts to urge President Barack Obama to make good on his recent rhetoric on climate change by rejecting it.

There have been signals that the pleas of environmentalists are not falling upon deaf ears at the White House.

David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, told The Canadian Press last week that Mr. Obama's vow to take aggressive action on climate change during his recent State of the Union address was meant in part as a challenge to Canada.

John Baird, Canada's foreign affairs minister, responded a few days later that the U.S. should follow Canada's lead on several climate-change fronts, coal in particular.

"We're the only country in the world that's committed to getting out of the dirty coal electricity generation business," Mr. Baird said. "These are real meaningful steps that will either meet or even exceed the work that's been done thus far in the United States."

Mr. Baird and Mr. Kerry met at the State Department less than two weeks. Mr. Kerry was non-committal about Keystone in a joint news conference, and was rumoured to have been tepid about the pipeline during the meeting.

The former Massachusetts senator, a fierce climate hawk during his 28 years in Congress, said he hoped to use his role as America's No. 1 diplomat to promote green energy technologies and propel U.S. industries into the "next great revolution in our marketplace."

"We need to commit ourselves to doing the smart thing and the right thing and to truly take on this challenge, because if we don't rise to meet it, then rising temperatures and rising sea levels will surely lead to rising costs down the road," he said.

Some in the U.S. capital speculate that the Obama administration wants something in exchange for Keystone approval, like a greenhouse gas emissions levy that would be imposed at the border and could raise much-needed revenue for the United States.

Mr. Obama rejected Calgary-based TransCanada's previous permit application over concerns about the impact on an ecologically sensitive area in Nebraska. But Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, previously a Keystone foe, recently gave his blessing to TransCanada's new route around a crucial state aquifer.

The State Department's latest environmental assessment of the new route is expected soon. With that report in hand, Mr. Kerry is expected to make the final decision on the pipeline in the spring.

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