Canadians think pipelines are safer than trains or ships for transporting oil and gas – but they have little confidence the government is prepared to cope with a potential spill, according to public opinion research commissioned by the federal government.

The study, which tapped Canadians through focus groups and a comprehensive telephone poll by Ipsos-Reid, also found 50.4 per cent of Canadians think building infrastructure such as pipelines, ports, roads and railways for resource development trumps potential impact on the environment. While 39.8 per cent believe the risk is too high.

Most confidence in pipelines

The survey found one out of two Canadians (48.9 per cent) are confident pipelines can transport oil safely – that means giving a score of seven or better on a scale where 10 means very confident.

That compares to just one of three Canadians (37.5 per cent) who believe tankers and ships can carry oil safely and less than a third (31.7 per cent) who believe trains can transport oil safely.

The study of public opinion on energy issues was commissioned by Natural Resources Canada and included 10 focus group studies in five cities and a telephone survey of 3,000 adult Canadians between Jan. 8-20, 2014, but was just released publicly. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.8 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

Keith Stewart, an energy and climate change campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, said it's not a case of choosing the safest of transport options for oil; industries must invest in safety improvements as a necessary cost of doing business.

"The industry – and frankly the Harper government, because it's difficult to tell the difference – want to say pick your poison: pipelines or rail? But the real choice is between clean energy and dirty energy when you're building new stuff," Stewart told CBC News.

"You also have to improve the cleanup and safety of existing infrastructure which is going to be around for years. You're not going to get off oil for years, but we actually need to make the investments today to get off oil tomorrow."

Ongoing protests against pipelines

Research for the Ipsos-Reid poll was carried out amid ongoing protests against controversial pipeline projects, including the proposed Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, and six months after the tragic train derailment in Lac Megantic.

Forty-seven people in the Quebec community were killed on July 6, 2013, when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil ran away, derailed and several tank cars exploded. Dozens of buildings were destroyed in the downtown area.

The poll found only one in four Canadians (29.3 per cent) are confident the federal government can respond effectively to an oil spill on land. Even fewer think the government can effectively cope with a spill on water – just one in four Canadians (25.8 per cent) gave a score of seven or better.

Sweeping survey

According to a preamble in the report, the research was conducted to better understand views on energy issues and to gain insight into general public awareness and perceptions around potential government policy. It cost $144,249.

Ipsos-Reid found Canadians had “little or no” familiarity with the government's Responsible Resource Development Initiative. Respondents welcomed the premise, but few were familiar with specific steps the government is taking.

“Unprompted recall of recent actions from the Government of Canada on natural resources or energy was low,” the report found.

The government announced a $165-million plan in 2012 to support responsible resource development by promoting job creation, strengthening pipeline and marine safety and supporting consultations with Aboriginal Peoples.

CBC News posed several questions about the poll's findings and how they could be used for government policy going forward, but Natural Resources spokeswoman Jacinthe Perras provided only the following emailed statement: "Our government has a responsibility to provide Canadians with the facts on an important sector of our economy and research such as this helps us fulfil our responsibility."