The Postal Service EV drama, explained
Good day, climate compatriots. Neither snow nor rain nor heat can keep your faithful Protocol Climate team from delivering today’s newsletter. Of course, that’s the beauty of the internet, isn’t it? The Postal Service also delivers no matter the weather, but how its mail carriers will get packages to your mailbox is the subject of increasing rancor. Join us as we explore why the USPS refuses to electrify its fleet, and why basically everyone is mad about it.
Can anything bring the Postal Service into the 21st century?
Congress is mad at the Postal Service. The Environmental Protection Agency is mad at the Postal Service. Climate people are mad at the Postal Service. The drama puts the “Real Housewives” to shame. What’s getting everyone up in arms is the USPS’ steadfast refusal to completely electrify its new fleet of mail trucks.
And unfortunately for the climate, basically nobody can force it to (save the courts, which, we’ll get there). The Postal Service is an independent agency, and there’s only so much that either the executive or legislative branches can do to make it go electric. So what’s an administration aiming to electrify its federal fleet by 2035 to do?
To figure out what’s happening and what’s next, I spoke with two witnesses from a recent House Oversight Committee hearing about the USPS’ big electrification drama: Jill Naamane, acting director of the Government Accountability Office’s physical infrastructure team, and Joseph Britton, executive director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association. Turns out the electric USPS dream isn’t dead yet.
Electrifying the Postal Service is a huge freaking deal. The existing 217,000 mostly ancient USPS trucks make up the largest share of the federal government’s civilian vehicle fleet. And the Postal Service has a plan to replace them. Just not with EVs.
- The agency has a contract with Oshkosh Defense to the tune of $11.3 billion for purchasing a so-called “next-generation delivery vehicle” fleet. It will entail “the single biggest tranche of vehicles that will be ordered in years,” Britton said.
- If those vehicles are gas-powered — as the majority are currently slated to be — it will lock in millions of metric tons of carbon emissions for years to come.
- Britton said that electrifying the USPS fleet is a “no-brainer” both because its routes are so limited in range (most cover just 20 miles in eight hours!) that most vehicles are unlikely to need nightly charging, and because regenerative braking is well-suited for the stop-start dynamic of delivering mail.
- In comparison, idling gas-powered delivery vehicles results in huge quantities of carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution: “Let’s say you’re on the road doing your postal route for eight hours straight; you're only going 20 miles in eight hours. And so most of the day, [the truck] is just sitting and idling emissions into these communities,” he said.
But the USPS has been stubborn, especially about the upfront costs of EVs. At Tuesday’s hearing, the USPS repeatedly cited the sticker shock and the “organizational and financial constraints” as reasons to not replace its entire fleet with EVs.
- The Postal Service says it simply does not have the money — $6.9 billion, per the agency’s own analysis — to do the electrification deed. This is despite the fact that the agency just received more than $100 billion in financial relief from Congress and has roughly $23 billion in cash on hand.
- Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the head of the Oversight Committee, said Tuesday that the USPS should simply spend the funds it already has, and that it needs to go back to the drawing board on its environmental assessment, cost estimate and agreement with Oshkosh.
- The agency’s response: “No.” (Well, it used more words than that, but that was its drift.)
- It's true that the USPS has been in fairly dire financial straits in recent years owing to a byzantine set of circumstances put in place by a 2006 law. Naamane said she gets the Postal Service’s position, and said she doesn’t necessarily think it’s arguing against spending the money in bad faith. “They are definitely experiencing a lot of pressure from a lot of sides,” she said.
- Both Britton and Naamane are still baffled by the agency’s steadfast refusal to budge, given that evidence shows that switching to EVs would result in energy savings and lower maintenance costs in the long term.
- “My guess is there’s probably generic change aversion,” said Britton. “But they’re in a position that’s very, very hard to defend.”
Naamane has questions about the USPS’ logic. In an effort to answer those questions, the GAO — which is the government’s main watchdog — is evaluating the USPS’ decision to primarily purchase gas-powered vehicles.
- During this process of trying to parse exactly what’s going on, Naamane said some of the USPS’ work “contradicts their own statements, or is clearly outdated.” Oops.
- Britton specified that the USPS seems to have relied on cost estimates for EVs, maintenance and charging infrastructure that are artificially high. The agency’s gas price estimates are also artificially low for decades to come, which, have you seen gas prices lately?
- The GAO report will likely be published by the end of this year, Naamane said. And it could add fuel to the EV fight.
The USPS is holding strong, but the struggle is far from over. The USPS could just cave to pressure (and reality), redo its analysis and come to the blindingly obvious conclusion that EVs make the most financial sense.
- But we might have a negotiation on our hands. Democrats in Congress have made it clear that they are ready to provide the funding the Postal Service craves if absolutely necessary, but they are pressing the agency to “make sure there's no other way that the Postal Service would be able to get this goal met,” Naamane said. A revised analysis could ultimately lower the estimated $6.9 billion price tag.
- Failing that, there’s nothing like a lawsuit to force an agency’s hand. A number of advocacy groups could well sue the USPS over its analysis. In fact, both Britton and Naamane think it’s likely they will.
- Last but not least, the Postal Service could stay the course, locking in decades of emissions and air pollution via a new gas-powered fleet! (Yes, I am grimacing as I type.)
Pinterest won’t let you deny climate change
You can find all sorts of things on Pinterest: mood boards for boho-chic living rooms; Trader Joe’s recipe hacks; countless crochet patterns. One thing you can’t find: climate denial.
The platform announced on Wednesday that it’s stamping out climate denial and misinformation in both ads and content. It’s also planning to remove "harmful, false or misleading" content during extreme weather events, which tend to be hotbeds for misinformation that could potentially be deadly.
The thought of Pinterest being a hotbed of climate denial is, admittedly, rather comical. (Say a prayer for all the climate deniers looking for 10 examples of “live, laugh, love” quotes written on reclaimed wood, I guess?) But there are a few interesting things about the platform’s decision. For one, good. Climate denial and misinformation have played a major role in slowing climate action to a barely visible crawl. Any effort to quash it is a plus for science and an informed democracy.
But more importantly, it also opens the door for activists to crank up the pressure on other social networks that have more, shall we say, open policies on climate denial. Facebook has attached fact-checking labels to climate misinformation. That’s nice and all, except for the fact that it misses half of it. YouTube no longer allows users to monetize videos featuring climate misinformation, but your crank uncle can still find plenty of videos out there about chemtrails heating up the planet to post to Facebook. And Twitter? Well, LOL.
Anyway, respect to you, Pinterest. Next time I’m looking for alternatives to wrapping paper, I know where I’ll be searching.— Brian Kahn (email | twitter)
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Make it rain
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Emitwisepulled in $10 million in series A funding. The company will use it to beef up its “AI-driven carbon accounting software.”
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— Lisa Martine Jenkins and Brian Kahn
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