The United States Postal Service dramatically underestimated the benefits of an electric delivery fleet in its environmental review when it agreed to purchase nearly all gas-powered trucks, a peer-reviewed study by University of Michigan researchers found. The lead author of the study, Maxwell Moody, called the USPS’s environmental review “significantly flawed” in a press release, adding yet another layer of criticism to the USPS’s handling of its new delivery fleet procurement.
Back in February 2021, the USPS awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to Oshkosh, a firm that mostly builds big, honking gas vehicles for the Department of Defense, to replace up to 165,000 of the Postal Service’s delivery fleet which is rapidly aging and routinely catching on fire. At first, the USPS said there would be both an electric and a gas version of the truck but not how many of each. Shortly thereafter, it said the order would be 90 percent gas and 10 percent electric, even though the Biden administration said it wanted the government’s vehicle fleet to go electric. The USPS didn’t have to abide by this executive order because since 1970 it is an independent agency of the executive branch rather than a fully-fledged portion of the federal government. The USPS’s decision to largely stick with gas trucks enraged environmental groups, many Democrats, and generally flummoxed anyone who knows anything about electric cars because the USPS is an ideal use case for electric vehicles (EVs). But, for a while, nobody could do anything about it due to the USPS’s independence within the executive branch.
That dynamic changed in February when the USPS released its legally-mandated environmental review of the delivery fleet purchase, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. That law doesn’t require the USPS to do anything other than to comprehensively and accurately disclose the environmental impact of its purchase while considering plausible alternatives. In theory, the USPS could have conducted a very thorough analysis showing it was poisoning the planet and spending more money to do it and nobody could have stopped them.
But critics of the USPS’s decision were hotly anticipating this environmental review. If they were correct that the USPS was making a terrible decision for both the environment and its own finances—as detailed in a thorough study by Atlas Public Policy, a non-profit research group—then an honest accounting in the environmental review would lay it all out and at the very least embarrass the USPS and prove Louis DeJoy was acting as a poor steward for the agency’s future. In other words, the USPS would have to admit in writing that it knows it's making a bad decision but plans on doing it anyways.
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Instead, the USPS chose a different approach: Fudge the numbers to make it look like a better decision than it is. One way it did so was to list the vehicle’s curb weight as one pound heavier than a critical regulatory threshold that allowed the trucks to emit more than they otherwise could. Another way it did so was to assume the price of gas would stay below $2.55 per gallon through 2040, despite gas being more expensive than that for much of the last 20 years. A third way it did so was to only study scenarios it considered infeasible, like buying 100 percent electric vehicles, so it could dismiss them regardless of what the results of the environmental assessment would be. Meanwhile, it didn’t study sensible middle ground scenarios like buying, say, 50 or 75 percent electric trucks.
All of these issues were immediately obvious to anyone who read the environmental impact statement, including the Environmental Protection Agency administrator who sent the USPS a strongly worded letter claiming that the environmental impact study done by USPS was "seriously deficient." Two months later, attorneys general from 16 states and five environmental groups sued the USPS on the grounds that it violated NEPA with its shoddy environmental review.
Which brings us to the University of Michigan study that confirms the environmental review was indeed shoddy. The study looked specifically at emissions estimates for the gas and electric versions of the trucks, including the so-called “cradle to grave” analysis that includes the entire vehicle life cycle, something the USPS opted not to do. Overall, they found the USPS underestimated the emissions of gas trucks and overestimated the emissions of electric trucks, making the electric trucks seem worse than they would be and the gas ones seem better.
Even after accounting for the increased emissions for the battery manufacturing, electric trucks would result in fewer emissions than gas trucks. The study found this for every scenario it tested, including one in which the grid efficiency continues on its current trajectory even though most experts believe it will get much more efficient over time.
Not only that, but the study found the USPS drastically underestimated the benefits of electric trucks. Under the “business as usual” scenario where grid efficiency continues on its current path, the USPS understated the benefits of EVs by 32 percent. If the grid gets decarbonized by 2050, then the USPS underestimated the benefits of EVs by 44 percent, because the cleaner the grid is, the lower the emissions of EVs when they charge.
The researchers also found discrepancies within the USPS review. For example, the USPS estimated a shockingly low estimate of 323 grams of CO2 equivalent per mile driven in the new gas trucks—equivalent to a MINI Cooper convertible or a Mazda 3 sedan despite weighing about twice as much—a figure the study says “cannot be reconciled” with a stated fuel economy estimate of 8.6 miles/gallon. When the authors calculated expected CO2 emissions on their own based on the combustion intensity of gasoline, they estimated an emission rate about three times higher than the USPS’s estimate.
As it happens, the USPS has since upped its electric truck order to 40 percent of the total order, a scenario that was apparently never considered feasible and therefore not studied by the USPS in its environmental review.