After facing fierce criticism from the Biden Administration and environmental groups over its decision to prioritize new, gas-guzzling mail trucks, the United States Postal Service wants people to know it is indeed still committed to electric vehicles… if only it had more money!
In an announcement made over the weekend, the Postal Service reiterated that its Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV) program would add 5,000 electric vehicles to its fleet and claimed it hoped to achieve a 70% electric fleet by the end of the decade. Those are bold statements, considering the agency recently said it would spend $11.3 billion on up to 165,000 new vehicles over the next decade, with 90% of those powered by gas engines. In a statement, Postmaster General and USPS Chief Executive Officer Louis DeJoy said the agency remains committed to an “ambitious” electrification push but claimed they are hamstrung by a lack of government funding.
“Absent such funding, we must make fiscally responsible decisions that result in the needed introduction of safer and environmentally cleaner vehicles for the men and women who deliver America’s mail,” DeJoy said. “Our commitment to an electric fleet remains ambitious given the pressing vehicle and safety needs of our aging fleet as well as our dire financial condition.”
That tepid walk-back comes days after the Environmental Protection Agency and The White House Council on Environmental Quality wrote letters urging The Postal Service to re-evaluate its decision to buy mostly gas-powered vehicles. The agencies criticized the USPS’s methods for determining the cost of an electrification effort and warned its fiscally conservative approach could threaten to upend the Biden Administration’s goal of having all federal agencies purchase 100% zero-emission vehicles for the federal fleet by 2035. For some context, those new gas-powered vehicles being considered by the USPS would achieve a meager 0.4-mile-per-gallon fuel economy improvement over the current 30-year-old model.
“The Postal Service’s proposal as currently crafted represents a crucial lost opportunity to more rapidly reduce the carbon footprint of one of the largest government fleets in the world,” the EPA letter read. “A ten-percent commitment to clean vehicles, with virtually no fuel efficiency gains for the other 90 percent is plainly inconsistent with international, national, and many state GHG emissions reduction targets, as well as specific national policies to move with deliberate speed toward clean, zero-emitting vehicles.”
When the Postal Service conducted its environmental impact statement earlier this year, it determined the added cost of electrifying the entire fleet of vehicles would come out to around $3.3 billion. That’s substantial, but in the grand scheme of U.S. government spending, it’s comparatively little. The U.S.’s troubled F-35 program, for example, costs around $1.7 trillion over its lifetime. For a closer analogue, the Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, which is facing serious concerns over its ability to defend itself, has racked up costs of around $13 billion.
The cost of electrifying the fleet would have also easily been covered in the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better Act, which aimed to provide $6 billion for the USPS to deploy electric mail trucks. A Postal Service spokesperson told the Washington Post back in October that the $6 billion in funds could make the agency’s vehicle acquisitions completely electric by 2028. However, after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin blocked the act late last year, Build Back Better looks a lot more like Build Back Never.
The USPS under DeJoy, meanwhile, has expressed a commitment to cutting costs wherever possible. Late last year, DeJoy said the agency plans to cut $160 billion in predicted losses over the next decade. That drastic belt-tightening comes after the agency has reported a net loss of $100 billion since 2007, according to Reuters. Last year alone, the USPS experienced a net loss of $4.9 billion. By the end of 2019, the Government Accountability Office determined the Postal Service had racked up $160.9 billion in debt, the Washington Post notes. These deficits are an obsession for DeJoy, who repeatedly points out the Postal Service has a “Congressional mandate to operate in a financially sustainable manner.”
But DeJoy’s comments only tell part of the story. While the cost-cutting holdover from the Trump Administration would like people to believe his hands are tied without an influx of government funds, he could still nonetheless commit the Postal Service to allocate funds toward electric mail trucks. That wouldn’t help balance the books, but then again DeJoy has run a deficit for years. And if he can’t find the money for the agency’s priorities through his magical ability to sniff out government waste, then what good is he?
Sticking to his guns, DeJoy could potentially make cuts to essential USPS services, which he’s done before, to squeeze out a few billion for EVs, but that would almost certainly draw more outrage from the public. And that’s the last thing DeJoy needs, considering multiple lawmakers have gone as far as to demand his resignation. They aren’t alone: A 2020 poll conducted by left-leaning firm Data or Progress found 56% of U.S. voters said they thought DeJoy should be removed or resign from office.
These same arguments over costs are occurring in tandem with a larger conversation of what role the Postal Service should play in daily life. DeJoy, following the conservative playbook, wants to reimagine USPS as more akin to a private company. However, that type of cost-cutting makes it nearly impossible to achieve the large, ambitious (and yes, expensive) changes necessary to drastically reduce emissions.
“Given our large fiscal deficits and significant financial challenges, Congress is well aware of the additional resources that would be required if Congress would prefer the Postal Service to accelerate the electrification of our delivery vehicle fleet as a matter of public policy,” DeJoy said in his statement.
That may be the case, but if the USPS is waiting on Congress to allocate more funds when it holds the slimmest of majorities and two saboteurs seemingly willing to nuke most moderately expensive policies, they might be waiting a long time. That essentially leaves two options: begrudgingly accept adding some more debt to fund EV mail trucks or sit and do nothing. Given DeJoy’s past record, the latter situation seems far more likely, but it also comes with potentially much graver costs. In 2019, emissions from transportation (which includes federal fleets like the USPS) accounted for 29% of U.S. emissions, according to the EPA—higher than any other source. With air pollution potentially killing millions worldwide every year, one could (and the Pentagon has) argue emissions represent their own type of national security threat worthy of military-style mobilization.
Then again, an armada of silent vans just doesn’t have the same pizazz as those trillion-plus dollar fighter jets, does it?
Correction: A previous version of this article identified the cost of an F-35 fighter jet as $1.5 trillion, though the estimated cost of the full F-35 program is $1.7 trillion. We regret the error.