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Climate activists sue USPS to block purchase of gas-guzzling trucks

US Postal Service trucks.Bloomberg/Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomber

Two environmental groups are suing the U.S. Postal Service to block its purchase of 148,000 gas-guzzling delivery trucks over the next decade, alleging the agency has vastly underestimated the vehicles’ costs and adverse ecological impact.

The suits brought on by Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council contend the mail service relied on flawed assumptions and faulty calculations in selecting its "Next Generation Delivery Vehicles." The contract reached with Oshkosh Defense in February 2021 is worth as much as $11.3 billion.

As a result, the complaints allege, the agency chose a purchase plan for 90 percent of the new fleet to be gasoline-powered, and the trucks' 8.6 mpg is only incrementally more fuel efficient than the 30-year-old vehicles they're designed to replace. That leaves 10 percent of the new fleet dedicated to battery power, well below benchmarks set by rivals FedEx, UPS and Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Postal officials hoped the truck procurement would go smoothly with policymakers and signal that the mail agency was evolving to meet new business opportunities and joust with its private-sector competitors.

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Officials on both sides of the aisle agree that the mail service desperately needs to replace its delivery fleet, but almost immediately upon striking the deal with Oshkosh, environmental groups said the 10-percent pledge for EVs was insufficient and organized labor groups chafed at the company's decision to move manufacturing away from unionized shops.

The Postal Service began studying the environmental impacts of the vehicles - which federal regulators estimate would emit roughly the same amount of Earth-warming carbon dioxide each year as 4.3 million passenger vehicles - after paying Oshkosh $482 million to begin production. The suits argue the Postal Service conducted its analysis to retroactively justify its procurement decision.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy placed the agency's first order for 50,000 trucks in March; 10,019 of those vehicles will be electric, slightly more than double DeJoy's original commitment. They are expected to hit the street by the end of 2023.

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Regulators from the Environmental Protection Agency and White House Council on Environmental Quality found serious deficiencies with the Postal Service's environmental study. Both said the mail agency dramatically underestimated the cost of gas-powered vehicles - it projected fuel prices at $2.19 per gallon, nearly $2 less than average gas prices this week - and how their emissions could worsen the climate crisis.

DeJoy in an interview last month said that "the economics that my team has come up with" are sound and support his agency's purchase plan.

"That is the math that we are going with," he said.

The 10% electric commitment falls well short of President Joe Biden and environmental activists' goals. Biden's plans call for the entire federal civilian fleet to go electric by 2035. The mail agency's 217,000 vehicles make up the largest share of the government's nonmilitary vehicles.

"The crux of this case is that the Postal Service performed its [environmental] analysis too late, and even the analysis it did prepare was incomplete, misleading, and biased against cleaner vehicles," Earthjustice attorney Adrian Martinez wrote in his complaint. The group is suing on behalf of the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Clear Air Now, a Kansas-based nonprofit.

"Astoundingly, the Postal Service signed a contract and paid millions of dollars for these vehicles first, before beginning its environmental analysis to justify its action, in blatant violation of [the National Environmental Policy Act]," the suit continues. "The Postal Service's improper action will not only needlessly pollute every American community for decades to come, but it will also cost millions more in taxpayer funds and leave the agency vulnerable to fluctuating fuel prices."

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The nearly 1 million member United Auto Workers union also joined NRDC's suit in the Southern District of New York. UAW leaders have objected to the contract since Oshkosh announced it would build the trucks in a new non-unionized factory in South Carolina rather than its unionized flagship facilities in Wisconsin.

"What we're asking the court to do is make them go back and redo the environmental analysis," said Frank Sturges, an attorney for NRDC. "What the Postal Service actually buys, who they contract with, is a decision that should come out of the analysis after a victory in our case."

DeJoy has said his agency will buy more electric trucks if Congress allocates the money or if the Postal Service's financial situation improves. The agency has long struggled with its finances after years of declining mail use, but Biden recently signed legislation into law to relieve $107 billion in past-due and future amounts from its debt burden.

DeJoy told The Post in March that the Postal Service did not have enough knowledge or experience with electric vehicles when he took office in June 2020 to pursue more EVs in the truck procurement.

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In the meantime, he said, the agency's existing fleet was failing. The trucks do not have air bags or air conditioning. They are known to catch fire from years of overuse. "We needed to buy trucks," DeJoy said.

“At this particular point in time, when I went to make the order, there’s 10,019 specific routes that I know are a slam dunk that we will use [EVs] and it will work,” he added. “And that is how I make decisions as we move forward. And I’m not buying 180,000 [trucks]. I’m buying 50,000. When I go to buy the next amount, we will reevaluate.”