States Sue USPS, Saying They Ignored New Vehicle Environmental Concerns

The United States Postal Service (USPS) had a chance to replace a significant portion of its vehicle fleet with electric vehicles (EV) last year. 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's Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV) has fresh design, which has been compared to a cartoon character and comes with several upgrades over the classic truck, like air conditioning, automatic emergency braking and a 360-degree camera.

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

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the current crop of postal trucks were originally rated for 16 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway. Though postal workers are required to turn off their truck when away from them, trucks of its size, passenger cars, heavy trucks and light trucks consume 8 billion gallons of fuel a year by idling.

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

Only 10 percent of the initial trucks would be electric, which the company has less experience building than other bidders like Workhorse, an EV startup.

Next Generation Delivery Vehicle
The new USPS delivery vehicles are rated for 8.6 miles per gallon when the air conditioning is on. Oshkosh Corporation

Out of Ohio, Workhorse specializes in the development of last-mile delivery vehicles. When the contract was awarded to Oshkosh, it filed a legal complaint to get it overturned. The complaint was dropped last year. General Motors, which has defense contracts with the U.S. and Canadian governments for a wide variety of vehicles, also bid.

USPS did say that it "anticipates taking advantage of the flexibility built into the contract with Oshkosh to increase the number of BEVs purchased in the initial delivery order."

According to the EPA, the current crop of postal trucks were originally rated for 16 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway. Though postal workers are required to turn off their truck when away from trucks of its size, passenger cars, heavy trucks and light trucks consume 8 billion gallons of fuel a year through idling.

In response to the Oshkosh selection, several states have brought a lawsuit against the agency in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (Case no. 3:22-cv-02583), claiming that it did not conduct a thorough environmental review of its plan to buy the vehicles and didn't consider viable, more efficient alternatives.

Those 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 the USPS signed a contract with Oshkosh before releasing those reviews and did not consider more viable alternatives that would've included a greater percentage of electric vehicles, 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. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Davis Noll says that the violations are pretty clear cut. She's the executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University School of Law, where she explores the intersection of administrative law and environmental law and justice.

The USPS released its environmental review a year to the day after announcing the contract.

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

She says that those aren't reasonable alternatives, saying that a judge would find them arbitrary and capricious.

"If you had a 50 percent or 75 percent electric fleet it would be much cheaper," she said.

For Kwame Raoul, Attorney General of Illinois, the proper execution of administrative law isn't the only problem. He told Newsweek that he's concerned about how the new vehicles might exacerbate pollution issues 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, Feb. 24 in Washington. Jim Watson/Pool via AP, File

"[Economically disadvantaged communities] are where entities that emit pollutants tend to locate themselves because more affluent communities are usually less tolerant and more organized to push back against the notion of pollutants being emitted into the air or water," he said. "And many urban communities have more fossil-fuel burning vehicles adding to air pollution."

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

"There's a driving force that's trying to make decisions that aren't based in logic, but are based on taking a position on policy issues that are being debated nationally," he said.

Both point to Louis DeJoy, the Postmaster General appointed by the USPS Board of Governors (a majority of which appointed by President Trump in 2020), as striking a partisan divide at the agency.

U.S. postman delivers mail
With more than 600,000 workers, USPS stands as a major U.S. employer. Above, a mail deliverer for the United States Postal Service 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 over regulatory violations, where she found that less than one-fourth of those cases went the agency's way.

"It just has the flavor of a decision that's pro-fossil fuels but obviously unreasonable," she said. "It's going to hurt people with emissions and other environmental justice impacts. The cost that they'll have to spend on gas is another factor."

Noll expects a judge to remand the decision back to the agency, finding a clear NEPA violation and potentially stopping them from moving forward with the contract until another environmental review can be performed.

When reached for comment via email, USPS senior public relations representative Kim Frum told Newsweek that that agency complied with all of its obligations under NEPA.

"The Postal Service is fully committed to the inclusion of electric vehicles as a significant part of our delivery fleet even though the investment will cost more than an internal combustion engine vehicle. That said, as we have stated repeatedly, we must make fiscally prudent decisions in the needed introduction of a new vehicle fleet. We will continue to look for opportunities to increase the electrification of our delivery fleet in a responsible manner, consistent with our operating strategy, the 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-duty vehicles by 2027, with the added directive of only purchasing zero-emission vehicles in all classes by 2035. However, that mandate doesn't apply to the USPS.

The Department of Homeland Security is currently testing Ford Mustang Mach-Es for its law enforcement fleet. The U.S. Park Police is transitioning its fleet of motorbikes to zero-emission vehicles by 2025.

This article has been updated to include a statement from USPS.