Report: Pipelines pose fewer risks than trains or trucks in carrying oil

Transporting oil is safer via a pipeline than by trucks or trains, posing a significantly lower risk to workers, according to a new study from Canada's Fraser Institute.

The report comes at a time when the White House is said to be weighing whether to approve a cross-border permit for TransCanda Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline. Recently, powerful business groups put pressure on President Obama, saying investor confidence in the U.S. economic recovery would falter if he blocked the project.

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The institute's report, published Tuesday, pulled data from the U.S. Transportation Department on incidents and injuries related to pipeline, rail and road accidents.

According to the data on incidents from 2005 to 2009, the rate of injury for those needing to be hospitalized was 30 times lower among pipeline workers compared to rail workers involved in moving oil. And road transportation was worse, with a rate of injury 37 times higher than pipelines.

The risk of an oil spill is also lower for pipelines, coming in at fewer than 0.6 incidents for every billion ton-miles of transport annually. In comparison, there were about two incidents per billion ton-miles traveled annually by train and 20 for every billion ton-miles by road.

"Rising oil and natural gas production in North America is outpacing the transportation capacity of our pipeline infrastructure," the study said. "Petroleum production is now nearly 18 million barrels a day, and could climb to 27 million barrels a day by 2020."

Currently, pipelines carry the majority of oil moving across the U.S. and Canada every day despite the recent surge in oil production which has resulted in more crude being pushed to trucks and trains. 

About 70 percent of oil is shipped by pipeline, 23 percent by tankers and barges, 4 percent by trucks and 3 percent is moved on rail.

But the potential for accidents and fatalities is higher with trains and trucks when compared to pipelines, said Kenneth Green, co-author of the report, in a statement.

“It's not a completely simple comparison," Green said in a statement. "When you have a pipeline spill the release volumes are higher than for a truck or train incident."

"But with road and rail you have risk of more incidents in more places, so the overall question of environmental protection becomes unclear."

Still, researchers concluded in the report that moving oil by pipeline "is safe and environmentally friendly."

TransCanada expects the long-delayed White House decision on Keystone to come through by the end of March, according to a Bloomberg report.