How the USPS Justified Buying 9 Times More Gas Cars Than It Needs

The postal service says 5 percent of delivery routes are too long for electric vehicles, so it has no choice but to replace 90 percent of its fleet with gas cars. Seriously.
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On February 2, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a scathing letter to the United States Postal Service, lambasting not only its decision to purchase up to 165,000 new delivery vehicles comprising 90 percent gas cars but also the manner in which the USPS defended that decision in an environmental impact study. 

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The USPS’ decision to buy mostly gas cars is the exact opposite of what postal services around the world are doing. La Poste in France has a fleet of 40,000 electric vehicles, or about 28 percent of the fleet, including pedal-assist e-bikes. 1,200 of the Belgian Post’s 18,000 vehicles will be electric by the end of the year. Italy’s post office ordered 1,744 EVs. Likewise, Japan ordered 1,200. The list goes on. It is also the opposite of what private delivery carriers in the U.S. like Amazon, FedEx, and UPS are doing.

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In order to justify this, the USPS conducted an environmental analysis in partnership with the consulting firm AECOM that, in the words of EPA administrator Vicki Arroyo, was “seriously deficient.” (AECOM did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment.) She pointed out several instances of shoddy math and bad assumptions. She also accused the USPS of doing this whole thing in the wrong order; the environmental review was conducted after a contract for the new vehicles had already been awarded, even though federal regulations say the study has to go first for obvious reasons.

For its part, the USPS has defended the vehicle purchase and its environmental review in a press release, claiming it has an “initial order plan” to buy 5,000 EVs (out of up to 165,000 vehicles), but doesn’t have the money to buy more. The USPS also says the procurement is urgent due the fact its current fleet is so old it routinely catches on fire.

But neither of these concerns are necessarily relevant for the environmental review process. So how did the USPS and AECOM conclude that buying 90 percent gas cars in the year 2022 was good for the environment? Because they didn’t study anything else.

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Do you know anything about the USPS vehicle procurement that we should know? Email Aaron Gordon at aaron.gordon@vice.com.

To be more precise, the USPS didn’t study any alternative it considered feasible. Instead, it studied three scenarios it did not consider feasible, even though two of them are better for the environment: 100 percent electric versions of the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle, commercially available gas vans like the RAM Promaster, and commercially available electric vans like the Ford e-Transit. The USPS threw out buying commercially available vehicles because it says it has specific requirements such as right hand drive for mailbox delivery, leaving only 100 percent EV procurement as the only alternative the USPS didn’t dismiss in the first 10 pages of the analysis.

At this point, you might be wondering what’s the point of studying alternatives that aren’t feasible. That’s exactly what the EPA is asking, too, pointing out that considering alternatives is, to quote a guide to environmental review analyses, “the heart of the EIS [environmental impact statement].” 

You may also be wondering what, exactly, is infeasible about transitioning to a 100 percent electric delivery fleet over the next 10 years, the duration of the vehicle contract, considering it is precisely what private companies and the federal government are vowing to do. And the answer to that question, at least from the USPS’s perspective, underscores what a shoddy environmental analysis this was.

The USPS says a 100-percent electric fleet is not possible because approximately 12,500 delivery routes are longer than 70 miles, the expected range of the electric version of its electric fleet procurement from Oshkosh, a defense contractor that has never made an EV before. (The largest Ford Transit EV has an anticipated range of greater than 100 miles.) Even taking this number at face value—which the EPA suggests we shouldn’t—that means 5 percent of USPS routes aren’t yet feasible for today’s electric vehicles. The corollary, of course, is that 95 percent are.

The obvious answer, then, is to buy, say, 90 or 95 percent EVs, because even the USPS’ own environmental analysis—criticized by the EPA as both underestimating the emissions of gas vehicles and overestimating the emissions of electric vehicles—concedes EVs are way better for the environment than gas cars, reducing emissions by some 537,415 metric tons of CO2 per year. (Reflecting the EPA’s criticism, an EPA calculator says this is amount of CO2 is equivalent to about 60 million gallons of gasoline, even though the USPS says it uses about 180 million gallons).

But the USPS didn’t study any of those scenarios. It, and the contractors at AECOM, only studied buying 10 percent EVs or 100 percent EVs. Therefore, the USPS concluded, it was infeasible to buy anything other than 10 percent EVs.

Update: This article has been updated with comments from USPS.