Fuel Crisis Meets Credit Crisis

Maybe "crisis" is too strong a word for what's going on in the worlds of finance and fuel today. Perhaps you prefer the word "crunch," with its candy-bar connotations. Whatever word you choose, things are getting hairy out there.

The spillover effects are evident when we look at promising fuel projects that can't summon the cash they need. 

On Friday, one of the very few new refinery projects in North America was dealt a huge setback. The developer, Newfoundland and Labrador Refining Corp., is seeking bankruptcy protection from a contractor that appears to be unhappy about not getting paid.

NLRC simply can't find the funding (current estimate: $4.6 billion). In a less jittery credit market, this would be pretty shocking. After all, the siting of a refinery with easy access to the Northeastern U.S. is compelling, and exactly what led Harvest Energy Trust (NYSE: HTE  ) to pick up an existing asset in nearby Newfoundland. The new refinery was to be a hearty 300,000-barrel-per-day facility, powered by the latest Honeywell (NYSE: HON  ) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) technology.

But Canadians desiring more domestic refining capacity are used to disappointment. A new refinery hasn't been built in the country since 1984. That's almost as bad as the situation in the United States. The only other Canadian plans I'm aware of are a BP (NYSE: BP  ) -backed project in New Brunswick and a Shell Canada proposal in Ontario. The former project, if embarked upon, would fire up no earlier than 2015 -- so don't hold your breath.

While crises and crunches crash into one another, it's important to remember one thing: As nuclear plant operators and petroleum refiners alike will tell you, you don't need a brand-spanking-new facility to significantly expand. Take the Saudi Aramco/Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) (NYSE: RDS-B  ) joint venture, Motiva Enterprises. That company fittingly describes its $7 billion Port Arthur expansion as "epic." It would take an epic market dislocation to shake out hands as strong as these.

Altius Minerals, a Canadian mineral explorer with a 40% interest in NLRC, is also joining the Potashapalooza tour. Think it will have an easier time finding financing for a multibillion-dollar potash mine if it finds a deposit? It's entirely possible, but my point is that if you're investing in companies pursuing capital-intensive new ventures today, you're best off sticking with the most fortress-like firms.

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Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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