Lawsuits seek to stop Postal Service from buying gas-guzzling trucks

Environmental groups and state attorneys general have sued to block the U.S. Postal Service from spending billions on new gas-powered delivery vehicles.

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The U.S. Postal Service is facing fresh legal challenges over its controversial plan to replace aging mail trucks with mostly gas-guzzling vehicles.

On Thursday, environmental groups, an autoworker union and a coalition of state attorneys general filed separate lawsuits seeking to force the Postal Service to scrap its $11.3 billion mail-truck plan and go back to the drawing board. The plaintiffs hope to prove that the independent government agency didn’t follow proper legal steps in its environmental review process.

The Postal Service signed a 10-year contract last year with Oshkosh Defense to purchase up to 165,000 mail trucks, with about 90 percent of those expected to run on gasoline. Postal officials said it would cost an additional $3.3 billion to make that fleet fully electric due to the higher upfront cost of battery-powered trucks and installing electric charging infrastructure at postal facilities. 

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In March, the Postal Service appeared to budge slightly on the issue when it formally placed an order for more than 10,000 electric trucks — twice as many as the agency initially planned to purchase. But the $2.98 billion order with Wisconsin-based Oshkosh still included some 40,000 trucks with internal combustion engines.

Kim Frum, a spokesperson for the Postal Service, said the agency conducted a robust and thorough review and fully complied with all of our obligations” under the National Environmental Policy Act (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,” she said in an email.

In their lawsuits, critics claim the Postal Service signed its contract with Oshkosh and invested in new gas-powered trucks before the mail service began conducting the environmental analysis required under NEPA. They say the agency used flawed assessments that overestimated the cost and complexity of adopting electric vehicles and underestimated the impacts that burning so much gas will have on air quality and climate pollution — particularly given that those emissions-spewing vehicles are expected to roam roads and neighborhoods for decades to come. 

We think the analysis they did is incomplete and misleading, and we think it led to bad decisions for our health and our planet,” Adrian Martinez, a senior attorney for Earthjustice, told Canary Media. He noted the current mail-truck plan could result in vehicles burning some 2 billion to 4 billion gallons of fuel over 20 years.

Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California along with the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Kansas City-based environmental justice group CleanAirNow KC. California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a similar lawsuit on Thursday along with attorneys general from New York, Michigan, North Carolina and a dozen other states, plus the District of Columbia. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council, representing the United Auto Workers, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Let’s be frank: The Postal Service can save money and cut pollution by investing in electric trucks,” Britt Carmon, federal clean vehicles senior advocate at NRDC, said in a statement.

Frum noted that the Postal Service’s mail-truck plan is designed to be flexible, allowing the agency to order a larger share of battery-powered trucks should more funding become available. She pointed to the mail service’s recent decision to double its initial electric truck order.

Oshkosh, which is making both the gas- and battery-powered mail trucks, has said it expects to start producing the first of the next-generation delivery vehicles” at its new facility in South Carolina in the summer of 2023, with trucks to hit the road late next year. However, if a court orders the Postal Service to redo its environmental review, that could throw a wrench in the automaker’s plans.

Martinez said he isn’t confident that the Postal Service will ultimately opt for a largely electric fleet, even if its current plan has the wiggle room to do so.

We’re asking for them to do the analysis over,” he said. Spending a decade between now and 2032 or so to invest in very inefficient, gas-guzzling vehicles just makes no sense.”

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.