House panel to grill USPS on plan to buy gas-guzzling trucks

A key House panel announced plans Thursday to question senior U.S. Postal Service officials about the agency’s decision to buy as many as 148,000 gas-guzzling mail delivery trucks despite directives from the Biden administration to green the federal fleet and opposition from top environmental regulators.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday about the mail service’s “next generation delivery vehicles,” or NGDVs, which hit the road starting in 2023. The Postal Service will spend as much as $11.3 billion with Oshkosh Defense over the next decade to replace its aging fleet but has committed to only 10 percent of the new trucks being electric.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy placed the order for the first 50,000 NGDVs on March 24; 20 percent of that purchase was for electric vehicles.

The Postal Service’s plan falls well short of White House goals to move the entire federal civilian fleet to electric vehicles by 2035. The mail agency’s 217,000 vehicles make up the largest share of the government’s civilian vehicles.

Transportation is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and even rising sales of electrical vehicles — which account for about 5 percent of new vehicle sales — have yet to make a significant dent in the auto market. Electric vehicle proponents had hoped the Postal Service purchase would provide a lift for the industry.

Private-sector fleets have flown past the federal government in electrification in recent years, and the White House and EV boosters contend that a green postal fleet would incentivize manufacturers to build infrastructure for more electric vehicles and the charging stations they need nationwide.

Victoria Stephen, head of the Postal Service’s NGDV program, will testify before the panel, Committee Chair Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) announced Thursday, as will Postal Service Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb.

Whitcomb’s office released a report this month that found that electric vehicles would be well-suited to mail-delivery duties and would save the financially beleaguered agency money in the long term.

“It is critical for our environment and our future that the Postal Service rapidly transition to an electric fleet,” Maloney said in a statement. “The federal government should be leading the way, not falling behind private companies that are already moving ahead to save money and curb climate change by electrifying their fleets.”

Key Democrats on the committee, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), have pressed federal officials previously on lagging plans to electrify federal vehicles.

Senate liberals Thursday reacted to DeJoy’s initial order for the trucks, urging the postal chief to “significantly increase the percentage of EVs” the mail service purchases. Nineteen Democrats in the upper chamber, led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Thomas R. Carper (Del.), demanded the agency provide records on its electric-vehicle analyses and detailed accounting information on its transactions with Oshkosh.

“USPS accounts for roughly one-third of the federal fleet and the actions that USPS takes will have a significant impact on whether the United States does its share to combat climate chaos,” the senators wrote. “While investing in a minimum of 20 percent electric postal vehicles is an improvement, the USPS must do more. Not only does USPS’s current plan to invest in predominantly fossil fuel powered vehicles endanger public health and the environment, the decision is also being made at a time when companies like Federal Express (FedEx) and United Parcel Service (UPS) are increasingly moving towards electric vehicles for economic reasons.”

Amazon has plans to purchase 100,000 electric vans, with the goal that half its deliveries will be carbon-neutral by 2030. It also holds a roughly 20 percent stake in electric-truck manufacturer Rivian. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

FedEx and UPS also have made electric vehicles a small but steadily growing part of their fleets. As of 2019, close to 1.5 percent of FedEx’s fleet — including delivery trucks, forklifts, and airport ground service equipment — ran on at least partial battery power.

But postal leaders contend a largely electric fleet would be too pricey, citing the high upfront cost of EVs and associated infrastructure. The Postal Service’s environmental impact statement for the NGDVs calculated that gas-powered vehicles would be more cost-efficient over their projected 20-year life spans. Independent auto and environmental experts have said that the agency’s figures are inaccurate and that the mail service would save money in the long term on lower fuel and maintenance costs, even if EVs have higher upfront costs.

The inspector general’s report backed up those arguments. “Electric vehicles are generally more mechanically reliable than gas-powered vehicles and would require less maintenance,” the report said. “Energy costs will be lower for electric vehicles, as using electricity to power an electric vehicle is cheaper than using gasoline.”

The NGDVs are hardly an environmental improvement over the agency’s current “Long Life Vehicles,” or LLVs. With the air conditioning running, they get 8.6 mpg, which is 0.4 mpg higher than existing vehicles. Experts say the industry standard for gasoline-powered delivery vehicles today is 12 to 14 mpg.

Electric vehicles would offer 70 miles per charge, the agency said, figures that auto experts and government regulators claim vastly underestimates their capability.

When it awarded Oshkosh the truck contract in February 2021, the Postal Service said the company could convert gas-powered vehicles to run on batteries as the agency’s financial condition and EV technology improve. But postal officials have said they have “no plans” to retrofit any of the vehicles.

The Environmental Protection Agency projects that greenhouse gas emissions from the Postal Service’s new gas-powered trucks would total nearly 20 million metric tons over the vehicles’ projected 20-year life span, roughly matching the annual emissions from 4.3 million passenger vehicles.

In an interview with The Washington Post, DeJoy said that he was not opposed to purchasing more electric trucks but that funding should come from Congress, and only out of Postal Service accounts if the agency’s financial condition improves. He said he was focused on replacing the agency’s failing fleet, not electrifying it.

“From my standpoint, my mission is delivering mail and packages,” he said. “The policy of electrifying the fleet of the nation is a mission that I will support. But I would be negligent to spend all my money on doing that.”

The 10,019 electric vehicles the Postal Service requested in its first order from Oshkosh correspond to 10,019 mail routes that DeJoy said he knows are a “slam dunk” for the trucks.

“That is how I make decisions as we move forward,” he said. “When I go to buy the next amount, we will reevaluate.”

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the mail agency’s aging LLVs are unsafe and in dire need of replacement. LLVs are 30 years old and don’t have air bags or air conditioning. They’re known to catch fire from years of overuse.

They’re also unfit for the Postal Service’s changing business. DeJoy has positioned the agency to compete more heavily on package shipping with such competitors as UPS, FedEx and Amazon. LLVs are far too small to handle the Postal Service’s pandemic influx of parcels. And where the agency’s mail business has declined by 45 percent since 2008, its package business has more than doubled. NGDVs have far more cargo area to hold packages.

Congressional appropriators are split on how — or whether — to fund the new postal fleet. The mail agency has roughly $24 billion of cash after lawmakers in 2020 approved an emergency $10 billion pandemic grant. And Congress in March voted to overhaul the agency’s finances, relieving it of $107 billion in past-due amounts and future payments.

Republicans, loath to approve spending for President Biden’s climate goals, have said DeJoy should press on with his mainly gas-powered fleet. Democrats appear to be split between authorizing more funds for electric NGDVs and battery-charging stations, and encouraging the Postal Service to spend the money it already has.

The Biden administration’s original “Build Back Better” social spending package contained $6 billion for electric postal trucks and battery chargers. Biden’s 2023 budget proposal includes $300 million for electric mail vehicles and charging stations.

Biden’s two nominees to the Postal Service’s governing board, Daniel Tangherlini (D) and Derek Kan (R), faced questions about the trucks during their Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.

“The Postal Service has, like, a quarter-million vehicles today, and all those vehicles rely upon an infrastructure that currently exists, which is gas and diesel fuel vehicles,” Kan said. “If we buy 10,000 electric vehicles and we deploy them to Montana or to some rural parts of the country, there may not be the electrification of the grid to support these vehicles.”

“The biggest pitfall in any long-standing procurement is rushing too fast ahead and getting ahead of the capability of your organization to absorb the technology,” Tangherlini added. “So what I would like to understand is how the Postal Service plans for the accommodation of a change in this technology?”

Anna Phillips contributed to this report.