Illinois Joins Lawsuit to Force US Postal Service Delivery Fleet to Go Electric

Illinois, 15 other states and environmental advocates are suing the U.S. Postal Service over its plan to buy thousands of gasoline-powered trucks for its delivery fleet.

The lawsuits claim the Postal Service’s environmental review had major flaws and are pushing the agency to move toward electric delivery trucks.

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The federal lawsuit Illinois joined was filed late last week, and it charges the Postal Service with botching its review of a plan to buy as many as 165,000 new delivery trucks in an effort to modernize its fleet. The contract calls for just 10% of those trucks to be electric vehicles, but the agency says it could buy more depending on whether it makes fiscal and strategic sense.

But Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul says it appears the agency didn’t follow the National Environmental Policy Act, by awarding the contract before conducting an environmental review.

“These laws are not put on the books just so you can check a box and put out a report after you’ve made a decision,” Raoul said. “The Postal Service has a fleet of over 212,000 vehicles. If we can effect change with the Postal Service, that could have a dramatic effect on preserving our environment.”

The Postal Services has been defending the deal. A spokesperson told WTTW News it placed an initial order for 50,000 new trucks in March and that a minimum of about 10,000 will be electric vehicles.

“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,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “That said, as we have stated repeatedly, we must make fiscally prudent decisions in the needed introduction of a new vehicle fleet. We will continue to look for opportunities to increase the electrification of our delivery fleet in a responsible manner.”

In addition to the 16 states suing the Postal Service, environmental groups are also taking the agency to court.

Patricio Portillo of the Natural Resources Defense Council says many of the trucks in the current fleet have been on the road for decades, meaning the new ones are likely to have a long life, too. And, he notes they spend a lot of time on the road.

“These vehicles, every day of the week … are in our neighborhoods idling, driving slow, doing the hard work of delivering our mail. But they’re also putting out NOx and particulate matter into our air,” Portillo said. “This is a big issue, particularly for communities that are already suffering from poor air quality.”

Local environmentalists are supportive of this legal effort, especially since it’s not just the Postal Service out on the road. The increase in e-commerce during the pandemic means more delivery vehicles than ever.

Advocates say electric vehicles can improve air quality, but they also caution it’s important that distribution centers aren’t just located in Chicago’s lower-income areas and communities of color.

“We understand that the city and state want to grow when it comes to transportation, logistics and distribution. However, they are not considering the impacts, both on air quality issues and cost of medical and health to our communities and the environment,” said Kimberly Wasserman of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “Unfortunately, the dollar signs of that growing industry are too attractive to look at the realities of what comes along with that in communities like ours and communities across Illinois are facing the detriment of uncontrolled growth in this area on a daily basis.”

Companies with big delivery footprints, including Amazon, have said they want to have electric vehicles make up a major portion of their fleets – but it’s not necessarily that simple. There are still production capacity and supply chain challenges to going all-electric. Caspar Rawles is chief data officer for Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a market analysis firm for the raw components that go into electric vehicles.

“Post-pandemic, we saw global governments looking to promote the ‘green recovery.’ A large part of that is the energy transition – the move from fossil fuels to renewable energy – and electric vehicles in transport are a really key component of that,” Rawles said. “Cost is a big problem. In the near term, managing those costs is very hard. There’s no effective hedging tool to manage your cost exposure. Then in the medium term as well, we're looking at a problem around sourcing, generally – actually being able to access the materials you need at the time you need.”

But, Rawles says commitments from the Biden Administration to improve the supply chain are positive signs for the EV market. And the NRDC’s Portillo says since the new USPS vehicles will be built by a single contractor, that should also ease some of the crunch and help make a fleet of electric postal trucks a reality.

Contact Nick Blumberg: [email protected] | (773) 509-5434 | @ndblumberg

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