What if earth had developed in such a way that crude oil was unavailable

How different would things be? Say, maybe plate tectonics pushed it too deep, or whatever? It got me to wondering how that energy-dense fuel affected human achievement and development, in general, but also in space flight.

Without the early development of petroleum products that allowed us to realize fast propulsion, would we have envisioned that it was possible to go to space?

Would the lack of fossil fuel affect our ability to go to the moon, for example? I read that the fuel that powered the first rocket that went to the moon was kerosene, which I assume is a petroleum product. Robert Goddard launched a rocket with liquid oxygen in 1926. Would we just have continued on that developmental path?

Crude oil is not available but coal still is? If so, coal liquefaction exists and would probably play a much larger role in society.

I’m guessing alcohol fuels would have seen more development. Piston engines run great on them, so the early days of aviation are still in contention. They aren’t so great for jet engines though, but that feels like a solvable problem in Petroleum-free alternate Earth.

Rockets require both a fuel and an oxidizer. The Luna 8K72 rocket (a derivative of the venerable R-7 rocket family still in use today as the Soyuz booster) did in fact use a refined kerosene product (T-1) along with liquid oxygen (LOX) as the oxidizer. Other rockets use different fuels, but all, even liquid hydrogen, are predominately fossil fuel extracts. Of course, without fossil fuels including coal, petroleum, and natural gas, none of our existing industrial infrastructure and modern metallurgy would be possible, so it isn’t just space travel that would be impacted. Could we have developed alternatives based upon agricultural derivatives or from solar power without the bootstrapping from fossil fuels? Anything is possible but for better or worse it would certainly looking nothing like our path toward industrialization and probably wouldn’t be nearly as fast or be dominated by one particular extract (coal in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, petroleum in the 1920s through the present day).

While alcohols, and particularly methanol, are credible fuels for some applications, the specific heat of combustion is way too low to be suitable for any kind of space launch application. There are conceptual design using synthesized fuels such as dimethyl ether (DME) in pulsed or continuous wave detonation engines but these haven’t gotten past a test stand thus far.

Of course, there are non-organic propellants in solid form with enough energy for space launch (e.g, ammonium perchlorate as an oxidizer with aluminum and binders as the fuel, commonly used in solid rocket boosters) but even though the basic constituents don’t require fossil fuel sources the materials to build the rocket almost certainly do. Without ready access to the concentrated and readily usable energy sources of hydrocarbon ‘fossil’ fuels, we’d have much different and more circuitous path toward any kind of advanced industry, and especially spaceflight.


I wasn’t aware of that, thanks for the link.

Yes, this is the thing I was curious about. I had an idea that energy-dense fuels would be needed for industrialization, or at least the infrastructure thereof and I know there are alternatives, or work arounds, but would didn’t know how much these would have even been though of without an oil derivative product to first compare it to.

The same natural processes that creates crude oil also produce natural gas. We’re kind of screwed feeding anything close to our current population without using natural gas to make fertilizer. The Haber-Bosch process is the dominant process for fixing nitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer. It replaced far less efficient processes that would have been challenged by the need for energy in a world without petroleum. Those processes were needed because mining niter and guano was already hitting limits. (The world was past “peak guano.”) Even current organically grown crops rely on indirect contributions from natural gas propping up the industry. Composted agricultural waste and livestock manure are considered organic fertilizers even if they started with inorganically fertilized fields. Stick inorganically fertilized corn silage in one end of a cow and collect organic fertilizer from the other end. Hard to see us being able to feed anywhere close to 8 billion people without access to natural gas

The long hydrocarbon chains in petroleum are a major input to the chemical industry. We’re surrounded by products that started with crude oil. Plastics, paints, pesticides (another issue with feeding 8 billion), lubricants, detergents, perfumes, and dyes are some of the many products that start with crude oil. Some of us take drugs that rely on crude oil as an input. There are older replacements for a lot of those things but they were replaced for a reason. Many replacements are plant based and compete for arable land, and fertilizer, with the food that we would be less capable of growing in that world.

Crude oil is far more than just an energy source.

That is an excellent point; the non-fuel residuals from petroleum area feedstock for many materials and products including virtually all non-silicone polymers, many lubricants and protective coatings, chemical precursors for many industrial products, et cetera. And as noted, the Haber-Bosch process is absolutely crucial to industrial-scale agriculture upon which our post-19th Century population growth has been utterly dependent. Although you could come up with individual replacements for all of these using solar or wind energy and bioengineering, doing so in the pre-Industrial Era requires a bunch of technological leaps that are certainly well outside of our path of scientific development.


With no coal, oil, or NG ever anywhere on Earth, we’re still living in the 1600s with 1600s era whale oil lighting, 1600s era sailing ships, 1600s era animal-powered civilization, 1600s era world population, and 1600s era science and tech.

Highly available high density energy sources that were easy enough to ignite at room temperature conditions was an essential first step to everything that came later. Materials, machinery, and the capital and surplus productivity needed to bootstrap all that flowed from them required then and requires now large amounts of easy-enough-to-obtain energy. For the then contemporary definition of “easy enough”.

If only one of those three did exist in the 1600s then we could get to where we are technologically but depending on which hydrocarbon it was and how easily extracted, it might have taken another 300 years to get to present-day tech and in that alternative history the year 2022 would resemble maybe the real-world 1820s.

All our science and tech advances by what are really baby steps that at the time seem pretty dauntingly large. It doesn’t take a change making some historical setup too much harder than it really was before the biggest step we can take then is bigger than could be taken then. Even if it looks pretty trivial now, or indeed is pretty trivial now, given all the progress we’ve made since that step was novel.

I think the question is not how would we replace everything that today depends on petrofuels, but more along the lines of ‘what if petrofuels never existed in the first place’, right?

As I understand, whale oil was a common fuel oil, as @LSLGuy mentions, and that the availability and easy access to surface oil deposits spurred the switch (fortunately, for the whales). With easy surface oil off the table in our scenario here, the whales may have become too scarce to support any budding industries, but maybe at some point biofuels could have come on as a replacement for whale oil? Even today, biodiesel is used in a variety of applications, for example. Could plant-based fuel sources have been exploited to the level needed to bring us to where we are today?

Yes, however badly I worded it, that was my intended question.

An excellent point. In that case, whales may well have gone extinct.

Given their birth rates etc., I fail to see how whales could have not gone extinct in short order.

If crude oil was never created that implies that all the billions of tiny zoo plankton and diatoms that lived and died for millions of years and fell to the bottom of ancient seas, etc never lived either.

What is planet Earth like then? Is it even inhabitable? Are there even humans? What is the atmosphere like? 50 to 80% of the oxygen is created by these plants in the ocean. Remove them and what kind of planet do we have here?

You can’t just simply remove that crude oil without a cascading effect throughout the entire ecosystem.

How much oxygen comes from the ocean? (noaa.gov)

Obviously the OP is a counterfactual, so we have to be cautious about what we treat as changed for the scenario and what remains the same as in the real world. Reasoning across that necessarily vague boundary is a fraught business.

So I’m not sure I agree that the absence of hydrocarbon deposits now requires that the earlier life from which those deposits formed had never existed.

Perhaps the reason for no hydrocarbons now is the planet had a faster subduction rate then so all those dead life forms are in the mantle now. Perhaps other aspects of geology differ so instead of hydrocarbons being concentrated as extractable “ore” bodies, instead they’re widely dispersed throughout the crust matrix at all depths. Sort of like how “rare earths” aren’t actually rare, they’re just very much not-concentrated and so difficult to gather in economically useful quantities. Perhaps evolution could have proceeded more quickly so human intelligence emerged long before the residue of Carboniferous period life had had time to be converted to usable forms of hydrocarbon. So Earth will eventually have concentrated coal & oil bodies, but not for another 20 million years. etc.

All interesting questions to speculate about in their own right.