The Biden administration launched a last-minute push Wednesday to derail the U.S. Postal Service’s plan to spend billions of dollars on a new fleet of gasoline-powered delivery trucks, citing the damage the polluting vehicles could inflict on the climate and Americans’ health.
The EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality sent letters to the Postal Service on Wednesday that urge it to reconsider plans to buy mostly gas-powered vehicles and conduct a new, more thorough technical analysis. The EPA also asked the Postal Service to hold a public hearing on its fleet modernization plans, a request the agency had rejected when California regulators made it Jan. 28.
“The Postal Service’s proposal as currently crafted represents a crucial lost opportunity to more rapidly reduce the carbon footprint of one of the largest government fleets in the world,” wrote Vicki Arroyo, the EPA’s associate administrator for policy.
Transportation is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and even rising sales of electrical vehicles have yet to make a dent. Electric vehicle proponents had hoped the Postal Service purchase would provide a boost for the industry.
While policymakers agree that the Postal Service’s aging and unsafe fleet is due for an upgrade, the question of how to do it has fueled a fight between Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major Donald Trump donor and holdover from the last administration, and Biden officials, as well as environmental groups, state regulators and the United Auto Workers union.
DeJoy, who oversaw the agency’s decision to award the truck contract to Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Defense, signed off on a plan calling for only 10 percent of the new trucks to be electric and offering only a 0.4-mile-per-gallon fuel economy improvement over the agency’s current fleet, which is nearly 30 years old. When asked why the Postal Service wasn’t buying more electric vehicles, he said it couldn’t afford them.
Over the past week, environmentalists and California’s top air quality regulator have called on the EPA to block the Postal Service from moving forward with what they described as a poorly thought-out purchase that would harm communities across the country. They asked the EPA to refer the dispute to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which mediates disagreements between federal agencies over actions affecting the environment and public health.
EPA officials declined to invoke this rarely used power. Instead, senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said they decided to send the warning letters to the Postal Service to give its leadership a chance to voluntarily change course.
They acknowledged that DeJoy might reject their requests, as he has rebuffed previous calls for the agency to rethink its plans. But they said that even if the postmaster general charged ahead with an order for mostly gas-powered vehicles in 2023, the contract’s first year, there is still time for the agency to pivot to electric trucks in later years if more funding became available or the leadership’s perspective changes.
It’s also likely that if the mail agency — which enjoys independent status from the executive branch — disregards the Biden officials’ objections and orders the new delivery trucks, environmental groups would sue. Adrian Martinez, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said the groups would have a strong case.
“It is hard to predict what courts will do, but the Postal Service’s work here is just so embarrassingly flimsy,” Martinez said. “They don’t reveal the source of the information for many of their conclusions, instead dismissing electrification outright.”
The objections took senior postal leaders by surprise. The Postal Service’s governing board was largely unaware of tension around the environmental impacts of the trucks, according to three people involved with the contract, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The House plans to vote in the coming days on legislation relieving the Postal Service of much of its debt — which exceeds $200 billion — and the individuals said postal officials privately worry that an ugly spat over its environmental record could spur congressional Democrats to delay the vote.
“While we can understand why some who are not responsible for the financial sustainability of the Postal Service might prefer that the Postal Service acquire more electric vehicles, the law requires the Postal Service to be self-sufficient,” agency spokeswoman Kimberly Frum said in a statement.
The agency would not say how much money it has already sent to Oshkosh, though the EPA’s letter notes that it awarded the contract “and funded as much as $482 million to the vendor” before conducting an environmental analysis, “exactly what CEQ regulations prohibit.”
Frum said the agency awarded Oshkosh the contract contingent upon successful completion of the environmental assessment process.
Concerns about the Postal Service’s contract have been simmering for months.
Independent auto industry and climate experts have panned the way it calculated the costs of maintaining and fueling the trucks. The 0.4 mpg improvement ranks well below the industry standard for a new service vehicle, according to experts.
The Postal Service once bragged that it could convert the new gas-powered vehicles to a battery-electric drivetrain with taxpayer funding, but has since backed off those claims.
Representatives from Oshkosh — which has little experience building electric vehicles for civilians — declined to answer questions about the postal procurement, citing a nondisclosure agreement. Oshkosh Executive Vice President John Bryant said in a statement that the company was “honored” to be selected to manufacture the trucks, and that production would begin in 2023.
In its public comments, the EPA questioned why the Postal Service had assumed in its economic and climate study that battery and gasoline prices would remain the same decades from now and overestimated the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by electricity powering plug-in vehicles.
The EPA also criticized the mail agency for basing its analysis of electric vehicles on current charging infrastructure, which is in a nascent stage, and for only considering either shifting to an entirely electric fleet or switching over just 10 percent of its delivery vehicles. The Postal Service’s own analysis showed that about 95 percent of mail carriers’ routes could be electrified.
The Postal Service’s draft analysis “presents biased cost and emission estimates” that favor gas-powered vehicles, the EPA wrote, urging postal officials to revise their calculations. The mail agency largely disregarded this advice, barely changing its final assessment released in December.
“There were just pages and pages of detailed economic and environmental analysis by EPA that the Postal Service either ignored or dismissed with a rhetorical wave of its hand,” said John Walke, who directs the clean-air project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.
The Postal Service’s current delivery truck, the Grumman Long Life Vehicle, was revolutionary when it began rolling down neighborhood streets in 1987. But hundreds of thousands of miles of overuse have led to a rash of vehicle fires. The trucks don’t have air bags or air conditioning, which has left postal workers exposed to rising summertime temperatures and at risk of heatstroke.
Postal leadership has long seen the deteriorating vehicles as one of the agency’s most pressing challenges, saddling it with hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly maintenance costs and putting it at a disadvantage in the e-commerce marketplace. But long-standing financial constraints — the agency is $206.4 billion in debt — have kept it from investing in new trucks.
DeJoy included new vehicle purchases in his 10-year plan for the agency, which lengthens mail delivery times to save money while raising the cost of some postage. The Postal Service is also flush with cash. It reported $23.9 billion in liquidity — much of it thanks to emergency pandemic funding from Congress — at the end of fiscal 2021.
The new, gas-powered trucks would be air-conditioned — much to the delight of letter carriers nationwide — but with the air conditioning running, they would average just 8.6 mpg. Electric vehicle experts said the industry standard for a gasoline-powered fleet vehicle is between 12 and 14 mpg.
Without a major improvement in their fuel economy, the Oshkosh trucks are expected to burn about 110 million gallons of gasoline each year, just an 18 percent drop in fuel consumption compared to the current model.
EPA estimates show the greenhouse emissions from the Postal Service’s new gas-powered trucks would total nearly 20 million metric tons over the vehicles’ projected 20-year life span, roughly equaling the annual emissions from 4.3 million passenger vehicles.
Environmental groups have questioned the Postal Service’s claim that the electric Oshkosh trucks could only travel 70 miles per charge. Although the market for commercial electric vehicles is still young, most of the electric delivery vans being snapped up by the Postal Service’s competitors have a driving range of well over 100 miles. The Oshkosh truck would run on a battery similar in size.
DeJoy initially tried to counter critics’ climate concerns by saying that Oshkosh’s gas-powered trucks could be retrofitted later, converting them into electric vehicles, even touting the technology to a House panel last year. Scott Bombaugh, the Postal Service’s chief technology officer, praised the conversion capability in a March 2021 interview with The Washington Post.
“Even if we were to roll out the door with an internal combustion engine in the vehicle, we have the opportunity, the way the vehicle is designed is to allow us at the end of the life of that engine to swap in a different drive train alternative,” Bombaugh said.
But the Postal Service backed away from that strategy in its latest environmental analysis, saying it “has no plans to retrofit any vehicles.”
Frum said powertrain conversions typically occur more than a decade into a vehicle’s life, and the agency had no intention to conduct them.
As the Postal Service has backtracked on its initial plans for the fleet, it has retooled its public relations campaign. In the fall it ran ads in outlets such as Time magazine, showing a lush forest with the line, “New routes to a sustainable world.”
“We’re committed to building a new fleet for a better environment, with more fuel-efficient vehicles driving by cutting-edge technologies,” the ad said, directing readers to a website for more information on the trucks.
But the site barely discusses the new fleet. “American business is changing,” reads the top of the page, “and USPS is changing with it.”