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The Fraser Institute found oil shipments by rail are 4 1/2 times more likely to have a spill than those pumped through a pipeline.

Elaine Thompson/AP

Transporting oil and gas by rail is more dangerous than moving it by pipeline, a new study has found.

Oil shipments by rail are 4 1/2 times more likely to have a spill or incident than those pumped through a pipeline, says a report from the Fraser Institute, which examined data from Canada's Transportation Safety Board and Transport Canada between 2003 and 2013.

"If you're going to move a given quantity of oil or gas by rail or by pipeline, it's considerably safer by pipeline," said Kenneth Green, the report's author and an energy and resources expert.

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During the 10-year period, there was a yearly average of 27 spills, ruptures or other occurrences for pipelines, compared with an average of 27 for railways. Pipelines moved 15 times more petroleum than railways, and on a volume basis were shown to be far safer. Most pipeline incidents led to small spills, said the report, which echoed U.S. studies that say shipping oil by truck and rail is more likely to cause spills and injuries.

"It really comes down to moving parts. Pipelines are fixed infrastructure. They are mostly underground. They don't interact with a lot of surface transportation," Mr. Green told The Globe and Mail. "But when you look at rail … there's far more room for human error. There's far more room for interaction with automobiles, transit systems and railways.

"By design, railroads run right through population centres because you're bringing goods to market. That's where you want them to be. And by design, pipelines tend to avoid population centres. So if you you're going to have an incident, the likelihood of human exposure and risk is going to be higher for your rail system."

The Fraser report comes amid debates in Canada and the United States over approvals for a handful of pipelines, including TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL. The proposed 2,700-kilometre pipeline, which would move Alberta crude to refineries in the southern U.S., has been hotly opposed by environmental groups that say the increased use of fossil fuels would hasten climate change. Backers of the project say it would help the United States meet growing demand for energy from a friendly source and would divert a rising volume of oil from the rails.

"When people say, 'I don't want a pipeline,' they're saying, 'I'd rather it move by rail,' and then there's a certain sense of shared responsibility there for the accidents that will inevitably happen," Mr. Green said. "No one is saying, 'I'm going to stop consuming' … and buying natural gas for cooking or heating or any of the things we use fossil fuels for."

The amount of oil moving by rail has soared in the past few years as the United States began producing more oil in the Bakken region of North Dakota, an area underserved by pipelines. At the same time, Canadian oil companies have had trouble finding enough pipeline space.

The danger of oil on the rails was highlighted by the 2013 explosion of an oil train in Lac-Mégantic, Que., that killed 47 people and destroyed the town centre. Since then, there have been several fiery oil train derailments, including two in Northern Ontario in the past winter.

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