Just days after his inauguration, President Biden promised to use the federal government’s procurement authority to achieve a zero-emission fleet of government vehicles. This spring, however, that’s led to a standoff with the United States Postal Service—an independent agency overseen by a Trump-aligned postmaster general who wants to replace 225,000 out-of-date mail delivery trucks with fresh gas-guzzlers, to the tune of $11.3 billion.*
The USPS, possessing the largest fleet of civilian vehicles, would offer a great opportunity for electrification. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s plan, on the other hand, would lock in USPS emissions for years to come. But there is still a chance to change course, thanks to a rarely used bureaucratic maneuver: The Environmental Protection Agency could refer the USPS’s plan to buy gas-powered vehicles to the White House, by way of the Council on Environmental Quality, or CEQ. If necessary, the matter could then advance to the president’s desk for a final decision.
The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which was unanimously passed by the Senate in 1969, mandated that all executive agencies are required to consider and prioritize the environment and climate in policies and projects. Agencies create environmental impact statements or, for smaller projects, environmental assessments, which outline the ramifications of projects that will significantly affect “the quality of the human environment.” If the EPA decides an environmental impact statement is insufficient, it can fall back on a rarely invoked provision in Section 309 of the Clean Air Act that grants the administrator of the EPA the authority to refer any federal agency’s environmentally unsatisfactory legislation, regulation, or project to the White House.
The Postal Service’s plan for an unsustainable gas-guzzling new fleet is ripe for a referral. Its 340-page flawed environmental impact statement has already been criticized by the EPA, House Democrats, and environmental advocates, who say it drastically underestimates the cost-effectiveness and mileage range of electric vehicles, while also unrealistically assuming a gasoline price of $2.50 a gallon in 2040. These faulty assumptions led the USPS to grossly overestimate the total cost of ownership for electric vehicles ($30,000 more than for gas-powered vehicles, according to its report), which in turn prompted the decision that an all-electric fleet was impractical. But the USPS cost analysis is inconsistent with those of major delivery companies, like UPS and FedEx, who are in the process of electrifying their fleets to improve their bottom line. In fact, the Postal Service’s environmental impact statement was so sloppy that the Government Accountability Office is now stepping in to conduct a report. Despite receiving over 39,000 draft comments and feedback from the EPA about the environmental impact statement’s various inconsistencies and faulty estimates, the USPS has failed to acknowledge its mistakes.
The Postal Service’s current leadership is unlikely to fix the problem on its own. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has been under federal investigation for straw-donor political fundraising schemes. (DeJoy told the Associated Press in late March that the Justice Department has closed the investigation without criminal charges.) Upon his appointment by the Trump-appointed governing board two years ago, DeJoy—the first postmaster general in 20 years to have no prior experience with the postal service—immediately gutted the agency by cutting overtime, shortening hours, and decreasing delivery trips.* House Democrats have alleged that the USPS is helping its fleet contractor Oshkosh Defense intentionally circumvent union labor at its Wisconsin factories by opening a new plant in South Carolina, a “right-to-work” state.
DeJoy has been lucky that advocates have so far not demanded that the EPA use its authority to refer the USPS’s vehicle acquisition plan to the White House. As The Washington Post reported: “EPA officials declined to invoke this rarely used power. Instead, senior administration officials … decided to send the warning letters to the Postal Service to give its leadership a chance to voluntarily change course.” In its “warning letter” sent to the USPS, the EPA rightly accused the agency of not following NEPA requirements in its review of the environmental impact of the gas-powered fleet. But the letter conspicuously didn’t include any threat to refer the matter to the CEQ.
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Situated in the Executive Office of the President, the CEQ is responsible for spearheading the federal government’s policies on climate change, environmental protection, and federal sustainability. The agency’s purpose is to ensure that environmental reviews are reflective of thorough environmental and community considerations. According to a 1986 report, CEQ’s “clout” comes from its position in the White House, making referrals a powerful tool. When agencies go against the council’s recommendations, they are effectively opposing the president’s agenda. USPS is already in hot water with CEQ Chair Branda Mallory who, in an open letter to Postmaster General DeJoy, voiced her concerns with its distorted analysis and failure to pursue electrification.
A referral from the EPA would give the CEQ broad authority to mediate the interagency dispute by holding public hearings and publishing new findings from its review of the agency’s proposal. The last referral, in 2016, halted the Army Corps’s construction of a levee that would have destroyed the New Madrid Floodway, a vital Missouri wildlife wetland. Preservation of the floodway mitigates the risk of Mississippi river floods, one of which left half a million people homeless in 1927.
But 24 out of the 28 referrals to the CEQ occurred in the 1970s and ’80s. Since 1990, there have only been four referrals. This is not for lack of opportunity. In 2010, during the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, rumors circulated that the EPA intended to refer that proposal to the CEQ. The referral never materialized.
Given the scale of the climate crisis, there’s no better time for the EPA to revive its abandoned executive power. The alternative would be for Congress to pick up slack for the executive branch—Representative Gerry Connolly has proposed a bill that would prohibit the Postal Service from purchasing a new fleet with less than 75 percent electric vehicles. But Congress so far hasn’t had much luck passing a climate agenda of any variety. And while Connolly’s bill would be an excellent step to green the USPS in the long term, it’s not necessary when the EPA could halt DeJoy’s plan using its existing powers.
Michael Regan, the administrator of the EPA who chose not to refer USPS’s fleet to the CEQ, has a somewhat patchy climate record. As secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, he failed to prevent North Carolina’s deforestation by the wood pellet industry, approved the construction of a liquid natural gas facility on Lumbee territory, and supported the contentious Atlantic Coast Pipeline. So far during the Biden administration, the EPA has failed to protect drinking water from toxins, such as perchlorate, and decided to go forward with Trump’s deregulatory greenhouse gas emissions rule for aircraft.
But Regan has also demonstrated the ability to do good. He recently announced the EPA would open civil rights investigations into state agencies in Louisiana to examine whether permits granted to petrochemical companies in the highly polluted area termed “Cancer Alley” have violated the rights of Black residents.
It would be nice to see Regan’s EPA take a more aggressive approach: From the Department of Interior’s coal mining permits to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of interstate pipelines, the EPA is tasked to review hundreds of environmental impact statements every year. The Tennessee Valley Authority, another independent agency, recently decided to move forward in replacing two coal-powered plants with methane gas rather than renewables, going against Biden’s goal of a clean energy grid. This summer, the TVA will be publishing its draft environmental impact statement for its new natural gas facilities. The proposal gives the EPA another critical juncture to pressure an agency to move toward clean energy.
Decisions being made at all levels of the federal government are shrinking our limited window to escape climate destruction. With climate policy in Congress at an impasse, it’s time for the EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality to rise to the occasion. The simplest place to start would be with the USPS’s delivery fleet.
* An earlier version of this piece misstated that DeJoy had been appointed by President Trump, rather than by the Trump-appointed USPS governing board. This piece has also been updated with news about the Justice Department’s investigation of DeJoy.