States are suing USPS, saying they ignored environmental concerns about new vehicles

The United States Postal Service (USPS) had an opportunity over the past year to replace a significant portion of its vehicle fleet with electric vehicles (EV). Instead, the agency decided to award the multi-billion dollar contract to Oshkosh Corporation, a company that builds gasoline-powered vehicles for a variety of commercial and military applications.

USPS’ Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV) has a fresh design that has been compared to a cartoon character and features several upgrades over the classic truck, such as air conditioning, automatic emergency braking and a 360-degree camera.

What it lacks, however, is fuel efficiency. Oshkosh says the vehicle’s four-cylinder gasoline engine will have an average fuel economy of 14 miles per gallon (mpg), which drops to 8.6 mpg when the air conditioning is on.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the current crop of mail trucks was originally rated for 16 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway. Although postal workers must park their trucks when moving away from them, trucks this size, passenger cars, heavy trucks, and light trucks use 8 billion gallons of fuel a year while idling.

That’s the equivalent of burning 78 million pounds of coal, according to the agency.

Only 10 percent of the trucks would be electric, giving the company less experience building it than other bidders like Workhorse, an EV startup. General Motors, which has defense contracts with the US and Canadian governments for a variety of vehicles, also bid.

Next generation delivery truck
The new USPS delivery vehicles are rated for 8.6 miles per gallon with the air conditioning on.
Oshkosh Corporation

Ohio-based company Workhorse specializes in the development of last-mile delivery vehicles. When the contract was awarded to Oshkosh, it filed a legal appeal to have it voided. The lawsuit was dropped last year.

The company is an Ohio-based EV startup specializing in the development of last-mile delivery vehicles. When the contract was awarded to Oshkosh, it filed a legal appeal to have it voided. The lawsuit was dropped last year.

According to the EPA, the current crop of mail trucks was originally rated for 16 mpg city and 18 highway. Although postal workers must park their truck when not near trucks of this size, passenger cars, heavy trucks, and light trucks use 8 billion gallons of fuel annually while idling.

In response to Oshkosh’s selection, several states have filed a lawsuit against the agency in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (Case No. 3:22-cv-02583), alleging that it failed to conduct a thorough environmental review of its plan to purchase the vehicles and did not consider viable, more efficient alternatives.

These 17 Attorneys General allege that the USPS violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which directs all government agencies to conduct environmental impact statements and environmental assessments as part of their decision-making process.

The coalition argues that prior to the release of these assessments, the USPS signed a contract with Oshkosh and did not consider more viable alternatives that would have included a larger percentage of EVs, among other alleged violations.

USPS delivery truck
A postman drives a United States Postal Service (USPS) mail delivery truck through Washington, DC on August 13, 2021.

Bethany Davis Noll says the violations are pretty clear. She is executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University School of Law, where she studies the intersection of administrative and environmental law and the judiciary.

The USPS released its environmental assessment exactly one year to the day after the contract was announced.

Noll says that not only does this fail to meet NEPA’s most basic standards, but it is a failure to consider viable alternatives to the plan. Noll says the USPS considered three alternatives: 100 percent internal combustion vehicles, 100 percent electric vehicles, or do nothing.

She says these are not reasonable alternatives and that a judge would find them arbitrary and capricious.

“If you had a 50 percent or 75 percent electric fleet, it would be a lot cheaper,” she said.

For Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, proper execution of administrative law is not the only issue. He said news week that he is concerned about how the new vehicles could exacerbate pollution in disadvantaged communities where postal depots are often located.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy
USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy speaks during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing February 24 in Washington.
Jim Watson/Pool via AP, file

“[Economically disadvantaged communities] are where companies that emit pollutants locate because wealthier communities are typically less tolerant and better organized to challenge the idea of ​​pollutants being emitted into the air or into the water,” he said. “And many urban communities have more fossil fuel-powered vehicles contribute to air pollution.”

He says he thinks the Postal Service has made a number of decisions through a partisan lens in recent years, rather than basing them on good governance.

“There is a driving force that is trying to make decisions based not on logic but on opinion on policy issues that are being debated nationally,” he said.

Both point out that Louis DeJoy, the postmaster general appointed by President Trump in 2020, reveals a partisan rift at the agency.

US postman delivers mail
With more than 600,000 employees, USPS is one of the most important employers in the USA. Above: A United States Postal Service mail carrier delivers mail in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Part of Noll’s research includes the success of Trump-era agencies being sued in court for rule violations, finding that fewer than a quarter of those cases went the agency’s way.

“It just smacks of a decision that’s pro-fossil fuel but obviously unreasonable,” she said. “It will harm people through emissions and other environmental justice impacts. The cost they have to spend on gas is another factor.”

Noll expects a judge to return the decision to the agency, finding a clear NEPA violation and possibly barring them from proceeding with the contract until another environmental review can be conducted.

When emailed for comment, USPS Senior Public Relations Representative Kim Frum shared news week that this agency has fulfilled all of its obligations under NEPA.

“The Post is fully committed to including electric vehicles as a significant part of our delivery fleet, even though the investment will cost more than an internal combustion engine vehicle. However, as we have repeatedly stated, we need to make fiscally prudent decisions when introducing a new fleet of vehicles as required. We will continue to explore ways to increase the electrification of our delivery fleet in a responsible manner, consistent with our operational strategy, deployment of appropriate infrastructure and our financial condition, which we expect to continue to improve as we pursue our plan.”

Late last year, President Biden signed an executive order directing the federal government to purchase only zero-emission light commercial vehicles through 2027, with an additional policy to purchase only zero-emission vehicles in all classes by 2035.

The Department of Homeland Security is currently testing Ford Mustang Mach-Es for its law enforcement fleet. The US Park Police will transition its motorcycle fleet to zero-emission vehicles by 2025. States are suing USPS, saying they ignored environmental concerns about new vehicles

Rick Schindler

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