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With an eye on his legacy, President Barack Obama will unveil Tuesday sweeping plans to help save the planet from runaway global warming by curbing greenhouse-gas emissions.

But the toughest climate-change decision soon to cross the President's Oval Office desk – the fate of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline designed to ship Alberta oil-sands crude across America – likely won't even rate a mention. Anti-Keystone XL activists said they will demonstrate at Georgetown University where Mr. Obama is scheduled to speak Tuesday afternoon.

Hours before he heads off for a high-profile African tour, Mr. Obama is expected to order the Environmental Protection Agency to draw up tough new curbs on coal-fired coal plants – which collectively spew 40 per cent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions – along with other measures designed to deliver on his promise to tackle the dangers of global warming.

In his inaugural address in January, Mr. Obama vowed "to respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

But Tuesday's speech is expected to be long on promises and short on specifics.

Last weekend, Mr. Obama seemed to be hedging on his inaugural pledge.

"There's no single step that can reverse the effects of climate change," he said in a video address to the nation. Instead of invoking the stark consequences of betraying future generations, he suggested some pragmatism was in order. "When it comes to the world we leave our children, we owe it to them to do what we can," he said.

What the President can do – at least without Congress where the Republican-controlled House of Representatives takes a dim view of visionary green-energy proposals – is clamp down on coal-fired plants. But in a briefing before the speech, senior administration officials indicated Mr. Obama would be ordering the EPA to draw up limits, rather than announcing them. And that process could take months, perhaps years, as the EPA deals with individual states.

"We have limits on arsenic, mercury and lead, but we let power plants emit as much carbon as they want," said one of the officials, who briefed on condition that they not be further identified.

As for Keystone XL, any decision is months away. But both ardent advocates of the project – including Prime Minister Stephen Harper who dubs its approval a "no-brainer" – and the burgeoning coalition of anti-pipeline activists regard the decision on Keystone XL as crucial. Both sides will dissect the speech looking for clues about the decision expected this fall.

"The bottom line is that [Keystone XL] is not yet ready for a decision," another official said.

The pipeline's opponents agreed, although they contend that even if Mr. Obama gets tough on coal-fired emissions, that won't provide political cover to approve Keystone XL.

"We're a long way from hearing from the White House about the tar-sands pipeline," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the key groups opposed to TransCanada Corp's $5.3-billion project to funnel Alberta's vast reserves to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

The White House seems to be signalling that secure supplies of foreign crude is no longer a top priority. "We are more energy secure that at any time in recent history," a senior administration official said Monday as he laid out the broad strokes of the President's speech.

Along with a major mandate to curb coal-fired power-plant emissions, Mr. Obama is expected to call for another round of fuel-efficiency standards. On the international front, the President plans to end U.S. financing for new coal plants abroad, save for in the poorest nations and even then only if they meet the best-possible emission standards. Officials also said the speech would lay out new efforts at carbon capture and incentives for advancing green energy.

But the onslaught of climate-change consequences has already started and Mr. Obama will also announce palliative and defensive measures to cope.

"Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of storms, floods and fires," acknowledged one of the senior officials briefing. The President will announce major new efforts to protect America's coastlines from the ravages of monster storms like the one that lashed New York City and the Atlantic coast last year.

Convincing Americans that human-caused global warming is driving catastrophic climate change won't be easy. A Pew Research Center poll published Monday found only 40 per cent of Americans said climate change posed a major threat. In Canada, the figure was 54 per cent, which was also the average of respondents in all 39 countries surveyed.