Science

USPS is trying to greenwash its plan to spend billions on gas guzzlers

The USPS issued a “record of decision” today stating that it has finished its environmental review and responded to the EPA’s concerns and will go through with its plan to spend up to $11.3 billion on gas-guzzling, 8.6 mile-per-gallon vehicles to replace the aging USPS delivery fleet.

However, if you read the USPS press release summarizing the decision, you wouldn’t know that – since the press release makes no mention of the USPS’s plans to buy polluting, fossil-powered vehicles, and repeatedly only mentions electric and electrified vehicles.

The USPS has been getting a lot of flack lately for its decision to replace its delivery fleet with gas-powered vehicles. Originally it was thought that future USPS vehicles would obviously be electric, as there are many benefits to electric drive for the USPS use case (cheaper to operate, low noise, no exhaust, less vibration, more low end torque, more energy efficient in stop and go environments, fixed delivery routes, etc.).

But when corrupt postmaster Louis DeJoy announced that the replacement vehicles would be up to 90% gas-powered NGDVs provided by defense contractor Oshkosh, lots of eyebrows were raised, particularly given that President Biden had already issued an executive order directing the federal vehicle fleet, including postal trucks, to go electric.

Decision shows hostility to EPA.

Today’s record of decision largely responds to the EPA’s comments from last month. Those comments stated that the USPS had not properly taken into account the environmental impacts of its decision and relied largely on false numbers to pad its analysis in favor of purchasing gas guzzlers instead of battery electric vehicles.

The USPS response (in the first 12 pages of the document) is quite aggressive in its response to the EPA. Covering each of the EPA’s concerns, the USPS says, basically, “nope, we thought of that, we know more than you, we’re doing it anyway, and you can’t stop us.”

Between the arcane referencing of previous impact statements, proposed alternatives, codes of federal regulations and so on, the tone is rather strong. It reads like a he-said-she-said internet argument rather than something that should be in the federal register. And, given corrupt postmaster DeJoy’s past, one would be justified in being wary of what his underlings have to say about this clearly poor decision.

But none of that is reflected in the press release which the USPS cheerily sent out for the media to cover. Despite the argumentative tone of the record of decision, the USPS’s picture of the process to the press is quite positive.

USPS greenwashes its decision

Here are the bullet points the USPS chose to publicize:

  • Through the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV) program, US Postal Service commitment to the fiscally responsible roll-out of electric-powered vehicles for America’s largest and oldest federal fleet remains ambitious and on schedule
  • The NGDV program, which delivers its first 5,000 battery electric vehicles (BEV) beginning in 2023, provides significant environmental benefits through the introduction of safer and more environmentally friendly vehicles
  • The flexibility in the NGDV program allows for an increase in the mix of BEVs should additional funding become available
  • Postal Service carefully reviewed and incorporated feedback from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding the NGDV program’s potential environmental impacts, detailed in the USPS 340-page Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS)
  • USPS concludes there is no legal or other basis for delaying the NGDV program

Notice anything funny? Three of five points mention electric vehicles, whereas zero mention gas guzzlers. The USPS touts the “environmental benefits” of its vehicles, yet only mentions 5,000 EV purchases when in fact it plans to purchase between 50,000 and 165,000 mostly gas-powered vehicles.

In the entire press release, internal combustion is only mentioned once, whereas BEV is mentioned seven times and electric or electrification are mentioned eight times. This 15:1 ratio seems quite the opposite of the USPS’s 1:9 EV-to-gas purchase plan.

By all accounts, these are gas guzzlers

It should be noted that the NGDVs are not, in fact, very efficient. While they do offer a modest increase in mileage versus current in-service Grumman LLVs, this is largely due to the age of the LLV fleet. The NGDVs will get an average of 8.6 mpg while using air conditioning, and 14.7 mpg without air conditioning, while the LLVs get 8.2 mpg – though they don’t have air conditioning.

Earth Justice points out that this is worse mileage than the 1988 Grumman LLVs got when new and that the NGDV will get worse mileage than the average EPA mileage of a Ford F-150. Further, the NGDV was designed to weigh exactly one pound over the weight limit for light-duty emissions testing, which means they will be subject to less stringent emissions standards.

Comparing to an F-150 isn’t the best direct comparison, as the NGDVs will be laden with payload for half the day and will spend much of their time in stop-and-go conditions. This reduces mileage – for a gas vehicle, at least. A BEV should have significantly less-reduced mileage from stop-and-go conditions due to regenerative braking. Also, low average speed would result in increased mileage compared to highway driving in the EPA combined cycle.

High emissions jeopardize US and world emissions goals

Even in the USPS’s record of decision, it acknowledged that “the full BEV NGDV alternative would have 200 percent fewer direct and indirect GHG emissions than under the 90 percent ICE NGDV” (note: the math here makes no sense, but we suspect they mean ICE would have 2x BEV emissions) – essentially saying that it has chosen an alternative with double the emissions of the other options (in Electrek’s calculations of table 4-6.2 in the USPS Final Environmental Impact Statement, it looks like the gas NGDVs will have ~2.4x the emissions of BEV NGDVs, not just 2x). Note that this statement still relies on the emissions calculations that the EPA claimed underestimate the gas NGDV’s emissions, so the truth is likely worse than this.

And given that these vehicles could be in place for decades – the Grumman LLVs are now 34 years old – they will continue polluting until well after it is reasonable to do so, given that the amount of time the world has to drastically lower our emissions and avoid the worst of the climate emergency is measured in years, not decades.

The USPS claims that its approved plan will result in cost benefits over the long term, but those cost calculations are as suspect as its environmental calculations. A lower maintenance, lower consumption vehicle used daily for consistent mileage that is ideal for a low-speed, stop-and-go use case is bound to see cost benefits, even when ignoring environmental costs, as many fleet operators have already realized. Add environmental costs (as we all should), and you’ve got a no-brainer.

So despite the USPS’s press release touting the environmental benefits of its decision, it sure seems to make it clear that the environment was not its main concern in the decision and that the decision is objectively much worse environmentally (and probably cost wise) than the alternatives which were passed over.

A way forward

To its credit, the USPS has stated that it is open to increasing the mix of BEV to higher than 10%, depending on future developments. At many points in its communications today, the USPS stated that, if given more funding either internally or from Congress, it could opt for an all-BEV fleet, as the Oshkosh contract is flexible to allow that.

But it’s hard to trust a corrupt postmaster when he’s asking for more money, especially when it is apparent that his organization has taken a hostile stance against the Environmental Protection Agency and may have been playing fast and loose with its calculations. It’s clear that change is needed in the USPS, though unfortunately it’s not that easy for the President to just fire the postmaster.

That said, funding has been proposed to allow for a BEV postal fleet to go through. The proposed Build Back Better act did include USPS funding for electric vehicles (along with many other EV benefits, such as the extension of consumer EV tax credits), but that bill stalled due to opposition from Senate republicans (who received 28 million fewer votes than Senate Democrats) and Joe Manchin, despite being supported by the vast majority of Americans (but not by Elon Musk, for some weird reason). And the House has already voted to relieve tens of billions of USPS debt obligations, a bill which will go to the Senate soon, which if passed should call their bluff and free up enough cash to fund a BEV transition if they’re honest about needing more funding to do it.

So while this decision has been marked by the USPS as final, we don’t believe this is the end of it. The Electrification Coalition called today for Congress to “return this deal to sender,” and we at Electrek agree. There is really no way forward that includes ICE USPS vehicles, except in the most niche uses in the short term (eg, very long rural routes). Congress needs to act and require the USPS to have a BEV mix of at least 90%, not at least 10% – and the USPS Board of Governors needs to fire corrupt postmaster DeJoy while they’re at it.

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