High vanadium contents in petroleum and other fossil fuels have been attributed to organic-matter type, organisms, volcanic emanations, diffusion of sea water, and epigenetic enrichment. However, these factors are inadequate to account for the high abundance of vanadium in some fossil fuels and the paucity in others. By examining vanadium deposits in sedimentary rocks with sparse organic matter, constraints are placed on processes controlling vanadium accumulation in organic-rich sediments. Vanadium, as vanadate (V(V)), entered some depositional basins in oxidizing waters from dry, subaerial environments. Upon contact with organic matter in anoxic waters, V(V) is reduced to vanadyl (V(IV)), which can be removed from the water column by adsorption. H2S reduces V(IV) to V(III), which hydrolyzes and precipitates. The lack of V(III) in petroleum suggests that reduction of V(IV) to V(III) is inhibited by organic complexes. In the absence of strong complexing agents, V(III) forms and is incorporated in clay minerals.