“Fossil fuels in the last century reached their extreme prices because of their inherent utility: they pack a great deal of potential energy into an extremely efficient package. If we can but sidestep the 100 million year production process, we can corner this market once again.”
— CEO Nwabudike Morgan, Strategy Session
The ability to create Synthetic Fossil Fuels in large quantities on Planet is considered a fourth-tier exploration technology in SMAC. It requires Gene Splicing and High Energy Chemistry to unlock. And when it is researched it enables the discovering faction to build units with the Missile Launcher weapon and terraformers with the Fungicide Tanks special. Overall, these are solid but not spectacular benefits.
The bare fact that this tech even exists on the tree in the position it does is almost certainly more interesting than anything it does in the game. Why aren’t there significant native hydrocarbon deposits for the player to discover? After all, the game has already determined that the biology of life on Planet is very similar to that on Earth. And, on Earth, our non-renewable hydrocarbon deposits come from dead biomass and the many millions of years that CEO Morgan refers to. There’s no obvious reason to believe the chemistry would work significantly differently in the alien ecosystem.
Looking more closely at the details scattered around the game, we can see that the colonists on Planet have five main sources of energy. Their most important source of energy from a military perspective is nuclear. All the units in the game that are built come with fission reactors and there is never any shortage of radioactive material to use in the reactors. This goes for terraformers, ships, infantry, and rovers. They’re all nuclear-powered in the SMAC future. Also, the fact that one of the prominent geographical features that provides extra energy is called the Uranium Flats is another big clue that radioactives are a big part of the energy economy on Planet.
Second in importance is solar energy. Solar collectors and giant echelon mirror networks work together to serve as the main way terraformers can improve tiles to increase energy yields. The game even goes so far as to model the fact that the collectors are more efficient if they are placed on tiles with a high elevation.
Third is geothermal energy. When the boreholes get going (either after building the Weather Paradigm or researching Ecological Engineering), they generate a massive amount of energy from the difference in temperature from the top and bottom of the hole in addition to the large amount of minerals that are excavated from the operation.
The next big source of energy is hydropower. From the very beginning of the game, tiles adjacent to a river yield bonus energy due to the presence of the river. And after Doctrine: Flexibility unlocks the foil chassis, terraformers on the sea can produce tidal harnesses, which make water tiles excellent energy producers.
The last primary source of energy is biomass. Working forests of Earth trees yields energy from the wood in addition to building materials. And as technology improves, the colonists learn how to yield large amounts of energy from the strange alien fungus.
So CEO Morgan clearly doesn’t want to synthesize fossil fuels for the reason why we want them on Earth today. He does not intend to use them as a new energy input into the system. Instead, as he says, he is interested in recreating a fossil fuel industry because of the potential for cheap and effective energy storage. This is fascinating because, as we’ve seen, he’s already got nuclear-powered everything. And nuclear power is even more energy-dense than hydrocarbons.
So it is particularly interesting that the first big application for these synthetic fossil fuels is large-scale missile launchers. It’s obvious that the datalinks from Earth must have contained working rocket designs that any of the factions could have immediately put to use. The reason why they haven’t up until now has been that they don’t have any rocket fuel. Up until now, the abundant nuclear power is portable and effective enough to power high-energy laser weapons, but it appears to be impractical to power a barrage of rockets with uranium.