Reading this answer I realized that for my purposes I don't really want a fully steampunk world. All I want is lack of cars and planes as we know them, and lack of oil, or inaccessible deposits of oil, would work like a charm. Still, I do need access to coal for my world, mainly to have steel industry, but also heating in winter and other little things like that.

What is the smallest change to Earth's geological history and traits to have crude oil unavailable, and coal accessible and as cheap as it was? It does not have to be black coal as long as it's energetic enough for steel production. Or is that totally impossible?

Linked answer and my attempts at research suggests it would be hard / impossible, but I hope you know something I wasn't able to find.

Note: I know it is not that simple not to have cars, and I know early internal combustion engines used wood gas and coal gas. I know we can convert wood and coal into gasoline, or close enough to power modern engines. No problem, I can work with that if only I can get rid of petroleum. It might be a topic of follow-up questions, for now don't bother, please.

  • $\begingroup$ Do keep in mind that you can have at least modern-ish cars without oil. (You might have to do some redesign for a different lubricant, but that should be doable.)I I'm pretty sure early cars were powered by things other than petroleum products, and wood gas made from wood (not necessarily coal) is a possible replacement. As discussed on the Wikipedia page, wood gas powered cars were commonplace as recently as WW2, and apparently are still being manufactured in parts of the world. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 31 '17 at 6:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael I know all that. But this was a topic of the question I linked. Here I'm asking about specific part of the issue. With this solved I can work on further details. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jul 31 '17 at 6:50
  • $\begingroup$ And, frankly speaking, wood gasifiers looks badass and I'd like to see them in my world. Plus, they are inconvenient enough for my purposes. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jul 31 '17 at 7:05
  • $\begingroup$ Petroleum is (geologically speaking) much younger than coal. So, obviously, there was a time when Earth had plenty of coal but little if any petroleum. Just set your world in the Permian period. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 31 '17 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP was coal well formed then? And can I reasonably have modern humans in that period? If so, it would be a good answer. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jul 31 '17 at 11:09

10 Answers 10


You're in luck. While most of us believe oil to be the remains of dead dinosaurs, the reality is that science doesn't actually know where oil comes from (look here, too). So, in one regard, your world can simply be declared to be "oil free."

If you want a solution that might be more believable to your audience (since most people don't know there's an argument about oil's origin), then go with the theory that oil comes from biological material on the bottom of oceans. As it migrates downward (pressure, other material covering it, etc.) pressure and heat change it to oil. In this regard, give your world shallow oceans. No depth, no pressure, no oil.

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    $\begingroup$ :-) Amusing. I noticed, @Andrew Dodds, that yours was the highest voted answer in the question and neither the question nor the answer addressed the issue of average understanding among average people, which suggests you might be more interested in being seen as an expert than helping an aspiring author write a book. I'd bet you a quarter, though, if you asked any average person walking down a major city street, you'd find 70%-80% of them answering against my assertion. Not that my assertion was all that important --- but that wasn't the point of your comment or downvote anyway. Cheers, mate. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jul 31 '17 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ From the U.S. Department of Energy we read... "Contrary to what many people believe, fossil fuels are not the remains of dead dinosaurs." But it's the U.S. Government --- probably not as smart as you are @Andrew Dodds. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jul 31 '17 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Molot - It's just that the whole 'abiotic oil' thing is one of those zombie internet myths that keeps coming up again and again.. I have to confess to be a bit oversensitive to it. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Dodds Jul 31 '17 at 7:46
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    $\begingroup$ Curiously, not a single comment (including my own) has anything to do with my answer, which neither accepts nor refutes abiotic oil. @Molot, in considering your bounty, I'd still like to submit my answer in that shallow oceans could result in an oiless world. Either way, thanks for the privilege of expressing an answer! $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 4 '17 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ "Sea levels in the Permian remained generally low, [this] could have in part caused the widespread extinctions of marine species at the end of the period by severely reducing shallow coastal areas preferred by many marine organisms." - You don't get there by not have shallows either. Time and pressure is an equation. Less of one just requires more of the other. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Aug 4 '17 at 20:59

Oil Eating Bacteria might work.

The BP oil spill was cleaned up in part by using oil eating bacteria.

In your world, have a species of bacteria that will ravenously consume petroleum, thereby making crude oil non-existant.

Here is some maybe potential problems. You will need lubricants. Oil isn't exclusive, but it's easy enough to get. Before you go to simple vegetable oils, keep in mind that when they hit smoke points they may change characteristics.

I don't know if your ravenous oil eating bacteria would attack coal. If it did, you could contrive a coal shortage brought on by it.

Just some thoughts

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    $\begingroup$ A precursor civilization that developed a polymer-devouring bacteria, thinking it would save their world from a looming garbage/landfill crisis. The bacteria adapted to devouring petroleum, leaving the civilization without anything to fuel their modern-day society, leading to a rapid collapse and eventual extinction. The bacteria remains, though there are very few traces of the precursor civilization. $\endgroup$ – Wolfgang Aug 4 '17 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ +1. Ah, Worldbuilding... The place where you can ask Earth science questions and get answers that you won't fall asleep reading. But there, you'd probably get closed for lack of research. @OP - Did you research how they're formed and then take those reasons away? Great, then ask us how to build a world with "those reasons". Meanwhile, read Andrew's answer for how it could have always been that way (and to fall asleep). $\endgroup$ – Mazura Aug 4 '17 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ In WWI the airplane engines used castor oil as a lubricant. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Aug 7 '17 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ Clearly there exist bacteria that eat crude oil. Conditions down in the oil reserves must be such that they do not do well. $\endgroup$ – Willk Aug 10 '17 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Will, that's in this world, but if biology has taught us anything, there exists infinite variety. It's a very small stretch of imagination to make it work. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Aug 10 '17 at 13:26

Simple answer: no oil-prone source rocks.

Good Oil source rocks are quite rare things, because they have to contain a high concentration of biological oils - plant leaf waxes and algae that use oil-filled 'swim bladders'. Apart from these, 'Normal' organic matter is made of carbohydrates and proteins - typically cellulose - that don't break down to oil no matter what you do to them. You get natural gas instead.

So in your world, simply have algae that never made oils - perhaps they make methanol/water sacs internally for buoyancy. This would make crude oil as we know it far rarer - not unknown, but not available in anything like the quantities that we see. Also see here.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh, this looks promising. I'll have to read more about that, but this looks like a solution. Having natural gas is not that bad, I could work around that. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jul 31 '17 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ This is geologically sound, but I question the viability of altering the tree of life at such an early stage. Luckily for the OP, it isn't tagged biology, or it'd be another no. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Aug 4 '17 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ > Based on a genetic analysis of mushroom fungi, it was proposed that large quantities of wood were buried during this period because animals and decomposing bacteria had not yet evolved enzymes that could effectively digest the resistant phenolic lignin polymers and waxy suberin polymers. They suggest that fungi that could break those substances down effectively only became dominant towards the end of the period, making subsequent coal formation much rarer. –Carboniferous $\endgroup$ – Mazura Aug 4 '17 at 20:30

This is far easier than you may think ;)

Just make your steam-punk novel as a post apocalyptic in our world.

Here we have completely depleted all readily accessible oil reserves (we are actually pulling oil from undersea and very deep wells, absolutely unreachable without modern technology) while there still are large ground-level (i.e.: still dug in open-sky mines) coal deposit.

  • $\begingroup$ Okay but using modern technology we can synthesis oil and diesel from coal, also there's a lot of other handwaving of modern technology that you'd need to backtrack to Steampunk from the modern era, even assuming a massively depopulating event had occurred. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 7 '17 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ With modern technology you can build oil from whatever contains enough Carbon, including natural coal or the coal obtained "cooking" wood. No way around. I hope OP really meant "no natural oil", otherwise it's impossible with "modern" (XIX sec.+) technology. $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Aug 8 '17 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ Which is probably why the OP asked for a minimal change in geological processes/history to explain a non-oil society. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 8 '17 at 13:43

Your species is the second intelligent beings on the planet

An intelligent species evolves on your planet. After a few thousand years of flourishing civilization, they exterminate themselves, somehow.

30 million years later, the scars of the initial civilization have mostly disappeared, and another intelligent species develops. As this intelligent species develops industrialization, they discover that there are widespread soft brown coal deposits, but almost no oil and little high energy black coal.

Lignite (soft brown) is rarely used because of its lower carbon content compared to anthracite (hard black). Thus, there are huge fields of the stuff that no one is eager to mine out. 30 million years is along time, but not really long enough to replace the oil that has been forming from 500 million years + of marine deposition; or the coal produced from 400 million + years of coal deposition.


In our world, we used coal for quite some time before we started heavily using oil. So I don't think it stretches any imagination to say a society has coal but not oil. They just haven't gotten to it yet, or looked in the right place for it.


There's fairly well understood processes of converting coal to gasoline (or other liquid fuels) broadly referred to as Coal Liquefaction (obligatory wiki link). Its more expensive than simply drilling for oil, but it works and has been used for decades (at least since WW2). In a world without oil these might never be discovered. Or, perhaps they'd be refined (pun intended) more quickly in the quest for a liquid fuel.

  • $\begingroup$ This would be an answer to the follow up question. More expensive gasoline would work for me. I plan to ask if it would be expensive enough. Still, this doesn't answer this question. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jul 31 '17 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ The point of the answer is its a technical 'no'. If you have coal, you can create a very good approximation of oil from it. $\endgroup$ – GrandmasterB Jul 31 '17 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ @GrandmasterB But we you never had crude oil to begin with, would we have thought to convert it into oil? While it is possible, it would be a revolutionary idea in a world with no crude oil at all, when coal, as it is is perfectly serviceable as a fuel. Humans experiment, but they also do the easiest and most cost effective thing, until such time that tech makes a change possible over a vast landscape. Technically possible, as you say, but a serious leap in a place where the concept doesn't even exist. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Aug 1 '17 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ What @ErinThursby says. My question is about crude oil, natural deposits, and I even added a note that I do not want to discuss gas from wood or coal in this question. Note was there when you posted. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Aug 1 '17 at 6:20
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby: We've converted coal into dyes. Even if you didn't have oil, you'd be synthesizing intermediate products for coal-based chemistry. And liquids happen to useful for chemistry, much more so than solids - they mix. So you'd have a chemical supplier come up with this "liquid coal" product that turns out to be really useful for other purposes as well. For instance, it makes a great solvent for other chemical reactions. But it wouldn't have taken people long to notice how flammable it is. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Aug 4 '17 at 11:02

You can have coal and no primary oil deposits, coal deposits form in shallow boggy environments on land, primary oil deposits form in the sea when the water is poorly oxygenated, so if you have no ocean stagnation events in your geological history you'll have no primary oil deposits. For example our current oceans are not thought to be accumulating any oil sediments due to relatively high deep water oxygenation levels. If you eliminate those deep sea carbon deposits you probably expand land based coal deposits in proportion, you will still get small deposits of secondary "coal-oil" from young high-grade coals but they won't be large enough for mass exploitation, also the existing secondary deposits are heavy oil, crude from the Taranaki Basin for example sets at room temperature because of the paraffin wax content, the pipes and tankers etc... at the refinery have to be heated to prevent freeze ups.

Some of the coals that you do get are going to be a little different too, because the deposits are larger, more carbon still available for plant growth, the lower layers of existing deposits will be higher grade than they are now. Odds are that the later stage deposits are going to be even thicker, relatively speaking, than the older Carboniferous coal measures, so a lot of thinner younger seams are going to be commercially viable, in the southern hemisphere particularly. Younger coals also burn hotter and slower due to the wax content imparted by flowering plant species that post-date the Carboniferous.

Edit: I realised when I was thinking about this a little more that you don't even have to remove secondary oil deposits, they aren't accessible enough to be noticed for exploitation without the large on land deposits to spur the development of a global petrochemical industry. That means coal can actually be of generally higher grade not lower grade to get the same effect.


A Young Earth

Your humans evolved while the earth was still young, and large deposits of fossil fuels had not had time to develop. This means no coal, or oil, however


In this earlier age, both Megafauna and Megaflora flourished. However, in a singular mass extinction event, the Megafauna were wiped out. Curiously, the Megaflora remained, leading to a world with enormous forests. Humans evolved from the surviving rodents in the usual way.

Before coke (fuel made from coal), charcoal was used as an industrial fuel in furnaces and forges. With a readily available source in the Megafauna, humanity made rapid use of this resource leading up the industrial revolution.

I realize this may significantly change some of the background of your story, but you did admit difficulty in making a justification, so it might work.

  • $\begingroup$ I think that ship sailed as soon as there was enough oxygen in the atmosphere to support complex life. No oxygen = no complex life. And you'd have no oxygen because there was no simplistic life. No simple lifeforms = no life whatsoever! +1 however, because it's a better handwave than, there were no dinosaurs. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Aug 4 '17 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking it would occur sometime just (millions of years) after the first development of Megafauna, with no previous mass extinction events. The (land-based) Megafauna would die off and be absorbed by the remaining Megaflora. Sea-based Megafauna could remain, allowing for many real stories about leviathans and giant squids. Wikipedia tells me the Carboniferous period (approx 35% oxygen) led to the development of many coal beds. Admittedly, I am not a geologist/paleontologist. $\endgroup$ – Wolfgang Aug 4 '17 at 19:48

Instead of having coal, you could have charcoal. It's easy to produce, same(ish) properties of coal, and it lets you get rid of both coal and oil.


I want to take a swipe at this one. My proposal: petroleum seeps

A petroleum seep is a place where natural liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons escape to the earth's atmosphere and surface, normally under low pressure or flow. Seeps generally occur above either terrestrial or offshore petroleum accumulation structures.1[not in citation given] The hydrocarbons may escape along geological layers, or across them through fractures and fissures in the rock, or directly from an outcrop of oil-bearing rock.

Once petroleum has a route to the surface, the lightest fractions elbow their way out first and escape into the air (or into the water). What is left is the gooey asphalt or bitumen. enter image description here https://www.desmogblog.com/2013/09/15/tar-sands-los-angeles-photos-la-brea-tar-pits

That thick goo is good for things like making tar paper or painting the bottoms of boats, but it is depleted in the volatile fractions we use for gasoline.

Why would your world be more prone to petroleum seeps? I can think of two reasons.

1: More earthquakes.

from https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs-096-03/

enter image description here

This petroleum seep in the Ojai Valley, California developed as a direct result of the 1994 Northridge earthquake in southern California. Notice the oil has not yet spread far and grass blades can be seen standing through the crude oil. The photo was taken a few days after the earthquake.

Earthquakes make cracks that the petroleum can use to escape.

  1. Hotter core.

More internal heat would make hydrocarbons more volatile / liquid and also put them under more pressure, squeezing them up through the cracks.

You could have both of these conditions at work, thus having an earth which was much like ours in the remote past but then lost its petroleum through seeps over the past several million years as the core heats up. A progressively hotter core would have other consequences for this world. But why a planetary core should be getting hotter and hotter...


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