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The Trump administration is gearing up to release by Thursday what is likely to be the biggest environmental regulation issued all year, driven by a 12-year-old law with a mixed record of success.

Driving the news: The Environmental Protection Agency faces a Nov. 30 deadline to issue quotas for how much biofuels refineries must blend into the gasoline supply under a federal mandate called the renewable fuel standard. Refineries are meeting the mandate now mostly by blending corn-based ethanol, though Congress had far greater ambitions for non-corn biofuels when it first passed the law, as the chart shows.

Expand chart
Data: Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Environmental Protection Agency; Note: Advanced biofuel includes biodiesel and cellulosic biofuel. Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

What to watch: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will formalize an informal commitment he made to a group of corn-state lawmakers to drop a series of changes he was considering that would have made it easier for refineries to comply. The regulation is likely to keep proposed deep cuts to the quota for cellulosic biofuels not made from corn, so expect criticism from the biofuel industry on that point.

Gritty details: Because of its political relevance, corn ethanol gets all the attention, but there's a lot more to the mandate. The policy is kind of like a Russian doll: smaller categories of different types of biofuels inside an overall mandate for biofuels.

The largest type by far is corn ethanol — often called "conventional" biofuels — followed by advanced biofuels, which means biofuels made from material other than corn. This includes biodiesel and cellulosic biofuels.

The back story: The biofuels mandate, first passed by Congress in 2005 and expanded two years later in another law, is considered by some experts to be the single biggest piece of energy policy to come out of Washington since the Clinton administration.

Congress passed it under a now outdated mindset before America's oil boom of the last decade: The U.S., heavily dependent upon Middle Eastern oil, must wean itself from oil. The laws also promised economic growth to the nation's corn belt, and cleaner fuel for our cars in the name of climate change.

It had something for everyone, and the laws passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. The mandate also has attributes that in hindsight have proven problematic, such as setting biofuels quotas by volume, not as percentage of total gasoline supply.

"Outside the ethanol industry, the mandate is viewed as an authentic policy error," said Bob McNally, president of the Rapidan Energy Group and former adviser to then-President George W. Bush. He left the administration before Bush signed into law the two bills that created the mandate.

Corn ethanol has boomed under the mandate, and was also helped by subsidies that expired in 2011. That has helped solidify an already-powerful group of farm-state lawmakers and lobbying interests. Gasoline blended with ethanol now makes up about 10% of the nation's gasoline supply.

Other types of biofuels, especially cellulosic, have not developed nearly to the extent Congress had intended when it set quota levels in the statute. This has happened due to a number of factors, including the unanticipated oil boom that has lowered gasoline prices and created an opening for oil companies to push for total repeal of the mandate.

The 2008 economic crisis also hampered advanced biofuel companies' ability to raise money. Both of these factors have made federal policy for advanced biofuels much more uncertain, compelling some advanced biofuel companies to adapt their business models to make things totally unrelated to fuel — like cooking oil and makeup, which can fetch higher prices.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
41 mins ago - Science

Biden's military space future

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President-elect Joe Biden should anticipate major and minor conflicts in space from even the earliest days of his presidency.

The big picture: President Donald Trump's military and civil space policies are well-documented, but Biden's record and views on space are less clear.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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  2. Politics: Bipartisan group of senators unveil $908 billion COVID stimulus proposalFDA chief was called to West Wing to explain why agency hasn't moved faster on vaccine — The words that actually persuade people on the pandemic
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  5. World: European regulators to assess first COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 29
  6. 🎧 Podcast: The state of play of the top vaccines.

Bipartisan group of senators unveils $908 billion COVID stimulus proposal

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in the Capitol in 2018. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday proposed a $908 billion coronavirus stimulus package, in one of the few concrete steps toward COVID relief made by Congress in several months.

Why it matters: Recent data shows that the economic recovery is floundering as coronavirus cases surge and hospitals threaten to be overwhelmed heading into what is likely to be a grim winter.