The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Climate 202

USPS electrification supporters face bumpy road ahead

The Climate 202

Placeholder while article actions load

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Jacob Bogage, a business reporter at The Washington Post who covers the U.S. Postal Service, helped write the top of today's newsletter.

Proponents of Postal Service electrification face bumpy road ahead

Democrats and environmentalists are gearing up to fight the U.S. Postal Service's plan to spend billions of dollars on a new fleet of gasoline-powered delivery trucks.

But none of their options are particularly promising, and the clock is ticking before tens of thousands of gas delivery trucks start rumbling down America's roads, undermining President Biden's goal of converting the federal fleet to electric vehicles.

“It's not obvious to me what the remedy is,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told Maxine yesterday in comments that summed up the messy situation.

The context: Under the leadership of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who took office during the Trump administration, the Postal Service moved forward with plans to spend up to $11.3 billion on as many as 165,000 new delivery trucks.

  • The contract with Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Defense only calls for 10 percent of the new trucks to be electric and offers only a 0.4-mpg fuel economy improvement over the agency’s current fleet, which is nearly 30 years old.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality last week sent letters to the Postal Service urging it to reconsider the contract, saying it rested on an environmental analysis with flawed assumptions and missing data, Jacob and our colleague Anna Phillips previously reported.
  • DeJoy fired back in a statement on Sunday, saying the Postal Service has the “flexibility to increase the number of electric vehicles introduced should additional funding become available” from Congress.

What can Congress do?

After DeJoy kicked the ball back to Congress, Democrats in the House and Senate are exploring ways of blocking the plan, although big hurdles remain.

In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Edward J. Markey (Mass.) and Martin Heinrich (N.M.) led a letter last week urging the Postal Service to pump the brakes on the contract. But the letter hardly carried the force of law, and the Senate is not poised to take up any related legislation.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House is expected to pass legislation this week to overhaul the Postal Service’s long-beleaguered finances. But the bill from Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) does not contain a provision sought by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) that would provide $6.5 billion for the agency to buy electric trucks.

That provision was included in Democrats' Build Back Better bill as a compromise with Republicans. But now the Build Back Better legislation is stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). 

There has been a belief, senior postal officials have repeatedly told Jacob, that Congress would fund the agency’s electric trucks after DeJoy was thought to have smoothed over initial concerns with Democrats when the truck contract was announced in February 2021. 

But once Manchin tanked the Build Back Better package, Congress didn’t have a backup plan for postal funding, and the Postal Service appeared to hit the gas pedal on its purchasing plan.

Appropriations

Huffman described the possibility of including language in an appropriations bill to block the Postal Service contract as unlikely.

There are limits to what Congress can mandate because of the semiautonomous nature of this agency,” Huffman said in an interview with Maxine yesterday. 

“I suppose it's a good thing to free a large agency like that from micromanaging by Congress,” he said. “But when you get the kind of leadership we have right now at the Postal Service, it's a disaster because there's no accountability.”

Republicans, at least in the House, appear poised to resist appropriating funds to the Postal Service for electric vehicles.

“I think we’re a ways away from that [postal fleet electrification]. This isn’t something that Republicans are interested in right now,” Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, told Jacob. “If [the Postal Service] can come up with a plan to electrify, that’s fine, but right now, there’s no realistic plan.”

The courts

Then there's the likely chance that environmental groups will sue the Postal Service over the contract.

Adrian Martinez, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, told Maxine that he “highly suspects” environmentalists will sue.

However, litigation could drag out for years. And postal trucks are built to stay on the road for at least 20 years, unlike their private-sector competitors or other international post offices. That means the first trucks that roll off the Oshkosh assembly line next year could be on the roads in 2043 and beyond.

That’s what has Democrats steaming with DeJoy. 

The Postal Service never formally drew up plans to electrify more than 10 percent of its fleet. And though the agency told congressional officials that it could convert gas-powered vehicles to battery power, it wrote in its environmental impact statement for the trucks — and told Jacob — that it no longer has plans to conduct those conversions.

On the Hill

Exclusive: House Democrats press Biden administration on clean water rule

A group of 120 House Democrats is calling on the Biden administration to swiftly finalize a science-based rule to protect America's waters and wetlands, according to a comment letter shared exclusively with The Climate 202.

“Federal protections based on sound science and consistent with the Clean Water Act are essential to ensuring clean water, which is essential for our economy and a healthy environment,” the Democrats wrote yesterday to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael L. Connor.

The letter was spearheaded by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Chair Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) and Joint Economic Committee Chair Don Beyer (D-Va.).

In November, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a draft rule to redefine the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act and repeal Donald Trump's Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which itself repealed the Obama-era definition of “waters of the United States” under the bedrock environmental law.

Monday was the final day to submit comments on the draft rule. In its own comments, the American Farm Bureau Federation urged the EPA to withdraw the rule, citing a perceived lack of engagement with farmers and ranchers.

Agency alert

Interior Department announces funding for abandoned mine cleanup

The Interior Department on Monday announced the availability of nearly $725 million to clean up abandoned coal mines in 22 states and the Navajo Nation. The funds were included in the bipartisan infrastructure law that passed Congress last year.

“In community after community, this legacy pollution was left behind by industry, and it poorly impacts our quality of life, from contaminated drinking water systems to playgrounds and schoolyards,” former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has supervised Biden's infrastructure plan, said on a call with reporters yesterday.

International climate

Biden vows to stop Nord Stream 2 pipeline if Russia invades Ukraine

Biden said on Monday that if Russia invades Ukraine “there will no longer be Nord Stream 2,” the planned natural gas pipeline from Russia into Europe, The Post’s Rachel Pannett, Robyn Dixon and Missy Ryan report. 

In an interview with The Washington Post on Sunday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also said Germany would be willing to block operations of the pipeline — which would increase Berlin’s reliance on Moscow — as part of Western sanctions against Russia in the event of an invasion. 

The Climate 202 previously reported that Nord Stream 2 would have vast environmental consequences if completed, including the potential release of massive amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Negotiators start work on U.N. plastics treaty

Negotiators from around the world will start talks this month on a United Nations treaty to reduce global plastic pollution, in what could be the most ambitious round of environmental diplomacy since the 2015 Paris climate accord, The Post's Michael Birnbaum and Min Joo Kim report

The negotiations have the support of the United States, the world's largest producer of plastic waste. They could lead to caps on production of plastics, which take centuries to break down and millennia to decompose. However, talks are so preliminary that diplomats are still debating which issues they will and won't negotiate. 

Extreme events

Mountain glaciers are melting fast, straining water supply

Extreme heat waves in January melted almost all of the snowpack on Andes glaciers, our colleagues Kasha Patel and Ellen Francis report. With about eight weeks left in the melt season, the exposed glacial ice could disappear faster now without a blanket of snow.

A study published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience shows that Earth’s mountain glaciers may have less ice than originally estimated, meaning they could dry up sooner than expected, especially as climate change hastens their melt. A separate study published Thursday in Nature Portfolio Journal’s Climate and Atmospheric Science determined that the South Col glacier in the Himalayas is losing ice rapidly, with ice that took 2,000 years to form melting in just 25 years. 

Premature glacial sweat could impact about 1.9 billion people around the globe living in and downstream of mountainous areas who depend on melting ice and snow for drinking, agriculture and hydroelectric power. In the Andes alone, glaciers account for almost one-third of the water that millions of people in major cities use during the dry season.

Corporate commitments

American Gas Association issues report on net-zero emissions

The American Gas Association, a trade group representing more than 200 companies, today released a report on how natural gas utilities can help the United States achieve net-zero emissions.

The report recommends a number of approaches, including methane leak repair programs, energy efficiency programs, carbon capture and sequestration, and direct air capture. It also calls for the use of hydrogen and renewable natural gas, an industry term for methane captured from organic waste at landfills, livestock operations, farms and sewage treatment facilities.

Natural gas is “affordable and reliable and still a fuel of choice,” Karen Harbert, the association's president and chief executive, said in an interview with The Climate 202. “And we're continuing to advance the journey on reducing emissions for the industry.”

However, some scientists and climate activists argue that electrification — not natural gas — represents a better option for the planet. They have pushed for cities and states to ban gas use in new buildings, citing the environmental and health risks of gas stoves.

Viral

The Washington Post's Sammy Westfall reported on a chimp family at Loango National Park in Gabon that was spotted medicating themselves — and others — with insects for the first time. Sarah Kaplan, who covers climate for The Post, beamed about it on Twitter. 

Thanks for reading!

Loading...