Red lights are flashing, but Ben Johnson pays them no mind. The long, lean, weathered engineer rests against a counter lined with computer monitors, describing life in the tar sands mines of Alberta, Canada. His task is to take a mud made of ore and water and “liberate the bitumen,” a tarlike oil that can be refined into conventional crude oil. He and two colleagues man a monitoring station that sits near the base of a cone-shaped structure the size of a three-story building. Mud and hot water flow into the middle of the inverted funnel. Bitumen rises to the top and spills over onto surrounding grates.
One time in 2012 bitumen bubbled up so fast that it cascaded down the sides of the cone and flooded the building shin high. To keep this kind of thing from happening again, sensors track temperatures, pressures and other parameters, and if something is amiss, a warning goes off. This happens so often—“1,000 alarms a day,” Johnson says—that the engineers have taken to keeping the sound turned off. “It's not going ‘bing, bing, bing,'” he says, “because that would drive us crazy.”