U.S. Postal Service finalizes plans to purchase mostly gas-powered delivery fleet, defying EPA, White House

Photo by: STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2020 12/22/20 The United States Postal Service (USPS), United Parcel Service (UPS) and FedEx try to keep up with increased deliveries during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City. (STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Postal Service finalized plans Wednesday to purchase up to 148,000 gasoline-powered mail delivery trucks, defying Biden administration officials' objections that the multibillion dollar contract would undercut the nation's climate goals.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency asked the Postal Service this month to reassess its plan to replace its delivery fleet with 90% gas-powered trucks and 10% electric vehicles, at a cost of as much as $11.3 billion. The contract, orchestrated by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, offers only a 0.4-mile-per-gallon fuel economy improvement over the agency's current fleet.

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Vicki Arroyo, the EPA's associate administrator for policy, issued a statement calling the Postal Service's decision a "crucial lost opportunity."

"Purchasing tens of thousands of gasoline-fueled delivery trucks locks USPS into further oil dependence, air pollution, and climate impacts for decades to come, and harms the long-term prospects of our nation's vital mail provider," Arroyo said.

Related video: Biden's nominees could shape the USPS's and Louis DeJoy's future

President Joe Biden has pledged to transition the federal fleet to clean power, and apart from the military, the Postal Service has more vehicles than any other government agency. It accounts for nearly one-third of federally owned cars and trucks, and environmental and auto industry experts argue that the agency's stop-and-start deliveries to 161 million addresses six days a week was an ideal use case for electric vehicles.

Federal climate science officials said the Postal Service vastly underestimated the emissions of its proposed fleet of "Next Generation Delivery Vehicles," or NGDVs, and accused the mail agency of fudging the math of its environmental studies to justify such a large purchase of internal combustion engine trucks.

But DeJoy, a holdover from the Trump administration, has called his agency's investment in green transportation "ambitious," even as environmental groups and even other postal leaders have privately questioned it. When DeJoy repeated the characterization at a public meeting of the Postal Service's governing board earlier in February, his remarks were met with chuckles from the audience.

Environmental advocates assailed the agency's decision, saying it would lock in decades of climate-warming emissions and worsen air pollution. The Postal Service plans call for the new trucks, built by Oshkosh Defense, to hit the streets in 2023 and remain in service for at least 20 years.

"Right now, putting aside the climate benefits and the air quality benefits, it is a smarter business decision to transition to electric vehicles," Katherine Garcia, acting director of the Sierra Club's clean transportation campaign, said in an interview. "Given our climate commitments, given our public health commitments, it is completely unacceptable for the USPS to cling to an overwhelmingly fossil fuel fleet."

"DeJoy's plans for the postal fleet will drag us back decades with a truck model that gets laughable fuel economy. We may as well deliver the mail with hummers," said Adrian Martinez, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "We're not done fighting this reckless decision."

DeJoy said in a statement that the agency was open to pursuing more electric vehicles if "additional funding - from either internal or congressional sources - becomes available." But he added that the agency had "waited long enough" for new vehicles.

The White House and EPA had asked the Postal Service to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement on the new fleet and to hold a public hearing on its procurement plan. The Postal Service rejected those requests: Mark Guilfoil, the agency's vice president of supply management, said they "would not add value" to the mail service's analysis.

Now that the Postal Service has finalized it agreement with Oshkosh, environmentalists are expected to file lawsuits challenging it on the grounds that the agency's environmental review failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. They will probably base their case on the litany of problems Biden administration officials previously identified with the agency's technical analysis.

The EPA and top White House environmental regulators have accused the mail agency of signing a contract for the new trucks and then using a faulty study to support its decision. Officials said the resulting analysis, which should have been written before a deal was made, relied on incorrect calculations of the new trucks' greenhouse gas emissions, the cost of fuel and the estimated cost of buying a larger share of electric vehicles.

EPA officials have 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% of its delivery vehicles. The Postal Service's own analysis showed that about 95% of mail carriers' routes could be electrified.

Regulators and activists had asked the agency to study more alternatives, especially since the agency has said that budget concerns are its main impediment to a cleaner fleet. The administration and lawmakers are considering giving the Postal Service more funding to buy electric vehicles. Biden's Build Back Better plan, for example, would provide $6 billion for a fleet of 70% electric vehicles.

Analyzing more purchasing plans is important, critics say, because the environmental study is supposed to look beyond the fleet's emissions or the pollution it would cause. It should also look at how and where vehicles will be deployed, argued said Sam Wilson, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"What would be reasonable to do would be to have a high-level scenario of 95% battery-electric vehicles, which matched [the Postal Service's] own assumptions," Wilson said. "Even a 75- or 55% analysis would be reasonable."

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