Prime Minister Stephen Harper was speaking in New York today as part of his government’s pro-Keystone pipeline lobbying effort, where he made the argument that if the pipeline isn’t approved, the oil will simply come in by rail and that rail is the more dangerous option. Unfortunately for him, the International Energy Agency (IEA) threw some cold water on the idea that rail can replace pipelines earlier this week.

Environmental groups, including Greenpeace, launched a new website today to counter the government and industry spin on tar sands.

There is no denying that there has been a lot of media interest in how the oil industry is increasingly turning to rail to move oil to markets as a response to the fierce opposition from environmentalists, First Nations and landowner groups to new tar sands pipelines.

Underlying the oil-by-rail hype is a very political message. The oil industry and their backers are telling opponents to give up the fight, because the oil will get to market one way or another. So pick your poison because the choice is between pipelines and rail, and there is no way that we can affect the rate or scale at which tar sands production expands.

This is nonsense. Framing our options as having to choose between pipelines and rail is presenting a false choice.

First: rail can't replace pipelines - at least not any time soon or without massive new rail infrastructure. In spite of rapid growth over the last few years, the 47,000 barrels per day of oil exports by rail from Canada to the US in 2012 is still less than 6 per cent of the capacity of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. And it is less than one per cent of the nearly seven million barrels per day worth of new tar sands projects in the queue.

The rapid increase over the last few years has been achieved by using existing rail infrastructure. Increasing this amount 10- or 20-fold to replace a pipeline, much less a hundred-fold to accommodate all proposed new tar sands production, would mean building a lot of new infrastructure (cars and rail lines), which would bring logistical challenges and new bottlenecks.

Yet oil-by-rail looms large politically due to the US State Department’s claim that a rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline by President Obama would not have a significant impact on climate change. The State Department argued that there would be no difference in how quickly tar sands production expands (and hence on greenhouse gas emissions) because if the Keystone XL pipeline isn’t built, then oil would simply be moved by rail.

This claim was criticized by the US Environmental Protection Agency in its response to the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement. Similar arguments (no new pipelines mean slower growth in the tar sands) have been made by business analysts, oil executives and even Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (who somehow manages to agree with the State Department on how the Keystone decision won’t affect future greenhouse gas emissions and with oil executives that it will affect future growth). 

Now the IEA has waded in, saying “Higher-cost rail transport is an alternative option, but would likely eat into producer margins, and thus might slow projects.” Translation: the speed with which tar sands production expands is an open question.

Secondly: Another world is possible - one where we invest in renewable energy and efficiency over squeezing out the last drop of ever dirtier-oil.

It is important to note, in this regard, that the IEA is a schizophrenic organization.

On the one hand, it has a mandate to advise member governments on how to keep energy prices as low as possible, so it produces a scenario that focuses on how we need to ramp up oil production globally (including from the tar sands). Yet it is also supposed to give advice on how to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, and so it produces a separate scenario based on the assessment by climate scientists that “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal.”

In this latter scenario, global demand for oil drops and we have already approved more tar sands projects than our carbon budget allows (see graph above, based on a 2010 IEA analysis which doesn’t take into account the rise of cheaper-than-tar-sands shale oil production in the US).

The key point to be taken from the IEA scenarios is that we have a choice with respect to which path we go down. The oil industry and federal government base their plans on an assumption that the world will fail to stop global warming, so we might as well try to get as rich as possible as we head towards 4 or even 6 degrees Celsius of warming. (For a slightly less wonky take – see how The Hobbit explains this dilemma).

Greenpeace, on the other hand, has worked with the renewable energy industry and independent experts to put forward a comprehensive plan for how we can make the transition to a low-carbon economy in a way that meets the needs of people while recognizing the limits of nature. This plan would avoid the need to expand oil production in the tar sands, Arctic or deep ocean.

One of the great ironies of Stephen Harper's comments in New York today was that he said there were no quick, easy answers to problems like climate change. This from the man who dismantled the independent advisory board, the National Rountable on the Environment and Economy, that was to provide those answers.

The truth is that we have the technology to solve this problem. What stands in our way is the entrenched power of the fossil fuel status quo, who want to keep building things like new tar sands mines and pipelines that will push us over the edge

The first step on the path to a different future? Stop listening to the oil lobbies telling you that there’s no way to make a difference.