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Tar sands test Obama’s green credentials

New pipeline is another indication that the US has failed to curb its oil addiction.

After a week in which WikiLeaks revealed in forensic detail how rich countries set about nixing a meaningful climate agreement at Copenhagen last year, climate-change hypocrisy looks increasingly like a fact of life. In the context of all the duplicity laid out by the leaked embassy cables, official doubletalk on emissions reductions is no more of a revelation than Russian corruption, or America's cosy relationship with the Saudis.

But as another round of climate talks limps to its conclusion with the usual cry of "a proper deal next year", Barack Obama has an opportunity to do something substantial about climate change. He could reject a proposal for an oil pipeline that would pump 900,000 barrels of the world's most polluting fuel – the oil squeezed out of Alberta's oil sands – to the oil refineries on America's Gulf Coast every day.

If the project – which would extend an existing pipeline running from Alberta to the midwest – goes ahead, America's dependence on a resource which has been described as "the dirtiest source of transportation fuel currently available" will be locked in for decades. You don't construct a 2,000-mile pipeline at the cost of $7bn if you plan to stop using it in a couple of years. US demand for Canadian tar sands will soar. Canada's oil companies will set about their task of converting Alberta's wilderness into greenhouse gases with ever greater feverishness.

It's hard to exaggerate how bad oil sands are. Turning this gritty mix of bitumen, sand and heavy metals into fuel is three times as energy-intensive as extracting conventional crude. The extraction process has poisoned Canada's surface water with mercury, arsenic and lead. Only yesterday it emerged that Canada's environment department has never tested the nearby Athabasca River for the presence of pollutants from the mining operation. This is despite the existence of a permanent laboratory downstream from the oil sands, which checks the Athabasca for the presence of all kinds of chemicals – but not oil sands pollutants. Huge tracts of Alberta now resemble Mordor.

The extension to the pipeline has already stalled twice. In July the US state department extended its review period for assessing the environmental consequences of the pipeline by 90 days. Then, in mid-October, with the Deepwater Horizon disaster still fresh in voters' minds just a fortnight ahead of the midterm elections, the government delayed once more. Crunch time is now approaching.

Hillary Clinton was criticised in October for letting slip that the government was "inclined to approve" the pipeline – before the end of the review period. As for Obama himself, he went quiet after admitting early last year that the oil sands' carbon footprint was a concern. A WikiLeaks cable from not long after gives the likely reason: he was urged to shut up on the subject, for fear of offending Canada's "sensitive" government.

Yesterday the No Tar Sands Oil Campaign, a group sponsored by most of America's environmental lobby groups, launched a $500,000 ad campaign calling for Obama to block the pipeline by calling for another audit of its environmental impacts. They claim doing so could prevent the next oil spill disaster, since a leak could endanger Nebraska's Ogallala Aquifer – the source of nearly 80 per cent of Nebraska's drinking water

Inevitably, Big Oil is fighting back. The American Petroleum Institute (API), Washington's biggest oil lobby, is launching its own campaign, saying that the pipeline's environmental impacts have been exaggerated and that Canadian oil will reduce America's dependence on the Opec cartel. It would, of course – but so would investing in clean energy.

But if Obama chooses to oppose the pipeline he might find he has the public's backing, despite the inevitable scrap in Washington. As Cindy Schild of the API conceded: "We've been promoting the economic benefits and jobs this resource can bring and we don't think it has been fully registering with the public."

Back in 2006, Obama said: "Our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return. And unless we free ourselves from a dependence on these fossil fuels and chart a new course on energy in this country, we are condemning future generations to global catastrophe."

Obama must be acutely aware that, so far, his government hasn't been able to do much for those future generations. Allowing this pipeline to go through would be a sign that they don't really figure in the arithmetic of US politics at all. As long as oil is pumped through the pipe every green sentiment mouthed by Barack Obama or his successors will be a platitude. A government trying to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels doesn't prolong its dependence on the worst kind of fossil fuels.

The battle lines have been drawn – but do Obama and his government have the bottle to take the right side?