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There are some perfectly rational environmental arguments against a massive expansion of North America's oil pipeline capacity. But safety is almost certainly the weakest one.

Vancouver-based think tank The Fraser Institute published a study Tuesday which concludes that pipelines remain the safest method for transporting oil, natural gas and petroleum products in both Canada and the United States.

The volumes of oil and other petroleum liquids moved by pipeline are much higher than by rail. Yet study authors Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Kenneth P. Green found that, according to government statistics on accidents, the average number of pipeline leaks in Canada over the past five years is barely one-tenth of the number of reported rail leaks. And in the United States, they found that on the basis of incidents per ton-miles of oil shipped, rail spills were four times more common than pipeline spills.

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It's a timely and illuminating finding, given the vocal political opposition to major pipeline projections such as Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, and the rapid escalation of the use of rail as an alternative to transporting oil in the already overtaxed pipeline system.

Oil shipments by rail in Canada have more than doubled in the past two years alone, according to Statistics Canada rail transport data. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) said in a June report that by the end of this year, as much as 200,000 barrels a day of Canadian crude could be exported by rail to the U.S. – more than quadruple the average daily amount in 2012.

While that's only about 6 per cent of Canada's total daily production, it may be just the tip of the iceberg. Canadian oil production is poised to increase by more than 1.5 million barrels a day, or roughly 50 per cent, by 2020, CAPP has forecast. With pipelines already operating at or near full capacity, the need for additional transportation capacity is acute – and rail is most definitely part of the discussion. And after some serious oil-related rail incidents on both sides of the border in recent months – most notably, and tragically, the disaster in Lac-Mégantic – we're more than justified to be asking tough questions about the risks of oil-by-rail.

One factor the study doesn't spend much time discussing is the size of those spills; while it has focused on leaks large enough to be considered environmentally hazardous, it mentions only in passing that liquid pipeline spills tend to be many times larger than rail spills – intuitively obvious, given the vast volumes passing through a single pipeline compared with a collection of individual rail cars. Nevertheless, the study makes a good point: Oil and other fuels need to be transported somehow if they are to reach the power generators and refineries that need them, and if you don't use pipelines, the alternatives – rail, truck, barge, etc. – are far from risk-free themselves.

The environmental movement has a valid point on the bigger-picture question of whether pipelines are sound long-term public policy. There is a compelling argument that we would be entrenching for another generation, or more, the dependence on greenhouse-gas-producing fuels, at a time when the long-term threat to the environment demands that we focus our energies toward cleaner alternatives. That's the strongest environmental argument against approving massive multi-billion-dollar pipeline expansions.

But the safety argument is little more than a scare tactic. It might win not-in-my-back-yard support from a short-sighted and self-interested public, but it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

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