A top House Democrat told senior U.S. Postal Service officials Tuesday that the agency “needs to go back to the drawing board” on an $11.3 billion plan to replace its aging delivery vehicles with up to 148,000 gas-guzzling trucks despite directives from the Biden administration to make the federal fleet more “green” and opposition from environmental regulators.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairing a hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, accused the mail service of ignoring “its responsibility to reduce the environmental impact of its fleet.” She said there was compelling evidence that the Postal Service made faulty calculations in deciding to purchase gas-powered trucks that get 8.6 miles per gallon — an 0.4 mpg improvement over the current 30-year-old fleet — rather than battery-powered vehicles.
The hearing reignited efforts from congressional Democrats to pressure Postmaster General Louis DeJoy into transitioning his agency’s fleet to zero-emission trucks, or to grant the agency funding to purchase cleaner vehicles.
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It also could provide would-be courtroom opponents of the Postal Service significant fodder for a legal challenge. The five-person panel before the committee included experts who gave sworn testimony that was critical of the Postal Service’s plans and rationale. Environmental activist groups have signaled for months that they may mount a legal challenge to the agency’s procurement, arguing that the Postal Service’s conclusions are based on flawed assumptions.
“I will not relent until the Postal Service finally follows the private sector’s lead and begins a real transition to an electric fleet,” Maloney said. “Going electric is imperative for our environment, for the Postal Service’s bottom line and for our national security.”
“We have learned a lot today about errors and discrepancies that seem to go right to the heart of this unusual decision that is so at odds with what the private sector is doing,” added Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), one of Congress’s foremost proponents of climate legislation.
DeJoy placed the order for the first 50,000 replacement vehicles on March 24; 20 percent of that purchase was for electric vehicles, though the agency has pledged to electrify only 10 percent of the vehicles purchased through the duration of the 10-year contract.
The Postal Service’s plan falls well short of White House goals to move the entire federal civilian fleet to electric vehicles by 2035. The mail agency’s 217,000 vehicles make up the largest share of the government’s civilian vehicles.
Transportation is the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States, and even rising sales of electrical vehicles — which account for about 5 percent of new vehicle sales — have yet to make a significant dent in the auto market. Electric vehicle proponents had hoped the Postal Service purchase would provide a lift for the industry.
Victoria Stephen, head of the Postal Service’s program for “Next Generation Delivery Vehicles,” told the committee that the agency had purchased as many electric vehicles as its current financial conditions allow. The agency has $131 billion in unfunded liabilities — even after Congress passed legislation in March to relieve its balance sheet of $107 billion in past-due and future payments. President Biden is set to sign that bill into law on Wednesday.
“We’ve deferred maintenance, we’ve deferred investments,” Stephen said. “It’s not just vehicles that are long overdue to be replaced. There are structural infrastructure-related things that are part of what the Postal Service requires to operate effectively and efficiently and over the course of decades to come.”
Policymakers on both sides of the political aisle agree that the mail agency’s aging trucks are unsafe and in dire need of replacement. The fleet is 30 years old and does not have air bags or air conditioning. The trucks are known to catch fire from years of overuse.
The agency is also in the midst of DeJoy’s 10-year transformation plan to refocus the mail service on its growing parcel-delivery business and eliminate years’ worth of financial losses.
But liberal lawmakers rejected that position, saying that the agency’s private-sector competitors Amazon, FedEx and UPS were already far ahead of the Postal Service in fleet electrification. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Stephen said comparisons to those businesses were unwarranted because postal vehicles require more stopping and starting during their routes than competitors’ trucks.
Witness Joe Britton, executive director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association, said that drive cycle instead makes postal routes even more well-suited to electric trucks.
“The starting and stopping, especially if you have strong regenerative braking, will provide you greater range in city driving, especially with use cases where you’re starting and stopping every 20 or 30 feet,” he said.
Republicans on the committee attempted to turn the hearing to a discussion of Hunter Biden, the president’s son who was involved in 2016 in the sale of a Congolese cobalt mine to a Chinese conglomerate. Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the top Republican on the panel, invited Hunter Biden to testify; instead Kenny Stein, policy director at the right-leaning Institute for Energy Research, testified at the GOP’s invitation.
“When we talk about converting to electric vehicles, rare Earth minerals are a crucial element of that,” Comer said, observing that U.S. domestic production of resources necessary for vehicle batteries trails far behind that of China.
Democrats pressed Stephen to turn over records to the committee on the Postal Service’s analysis of how many electric vehicles it will purchase, and said they would try to insert funding for the electric trucks into future legislation.
The Biden administration’s original “Build Back Better” social spending package contained $6 billion for electric postal trucks and battery chargers. Biden’s 2023 budget proposal includes $300 million for electric mail vehicles and charging stations.
“If the funding was made available to us, we would absolutely adjust our plans,” Stephen said. “Our plans today reflect what we can afford with our own resources.”
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