WASHINGTON — Attorneys general from 16 states and the District of Columbia, along with five environmental groups and the United Auto Workers, launched a legal challenge against the United States Postal Service on Thursday, claiming that it violated the law when it ordered thousands of new mail trucks powered by gasoline instead of electricity.
Together, the three lawsuits filed in two different federal courts raise the stakes of a conflict over the climate impacts of the Postal Service’s iconic delivery trucks that has roiled the administration for months.
Earlier this year, a leading House Democrat, Gerald Connolly of Virginia, called for the resignation of Louis DeJoy, the postmaster general, saying that he flouted President Biden’s executive order to electrify the federal fleet by placing an order worth up to $6 billion over 10 years for mostly gasoline-powered trucks.
The Postal Service is an independent agency that is not bound by the administration’s climate rules. It also owns more than 231,000 vehicles, one of the largest civilian fleets in the world. The contract would be the Postal Service’s first large-scale vehicle purchase in three decades.
Environmentalists said that Mr. DeJoy’s order of 165,000 gasoline-powered mail delivery trucks from Oshkosh Defense, a Wisconsin-based company that manufactures military vehicles, could hurt the nation’s effort to combat climate change. The United Auto Workers said that it breaks the president’s promise to advance environmental policies that will grow union jobs, since the new trucks are expected to be built in nonunion factories.
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Those criticisms could have political repercussions for the president, who relied on support from environmental activists and union workers to win the White House in 2020.
But the move was also illegal, according to the court filings of the environmentalists, the union and the Democratic attorneys general of California, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and 10 other states as well as D.C.
They wrote that the Postal Service violated the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which required it to consider the environmental impacts of the vehicle purchase.
“Instead, the Postal Service first chose a manufacturer with minimal experience in producing electric vehicles, signed a contract, and made a substantial down payment for new vehicles,” the attorneys general wrote. “In doing so, the Postal Service failed to comply with even the most basic requirements of NEPA.”
A spokeswoman for the Postal Service, Kimberly Frum, said that contention was false. “The Postal Service conducted a robust and thorough review and fully complied with all of our obligations,” she wrote in an email.
Ms. Frum added that the decision to purchase the gasoline-powered trucks, rather than more expensive electric trucks, also took into account the financial woes of the Postal Service, which is currently about $206.4 billion dollars in debt. Earlier this month, Mr. Biden signed a bipartisan law that will relieve some of that debt.
“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. That said, as we have stated repeatedly, we must make fiscally prudent decisions in the needed introduction of a new vehicle fleet,” Ms. Frum wrote.
The Postal Service estimated that the new vehicles would get 29.9 miles per gallon. A separate analysis by the E.P.A. found the vehicles could achieve less than half that: just 14.7 miles per gallon. And with the air-conditioning running, the new trucks would only get 8.6 miles per gallon, the E.P.A. said.
While mail delivery trucks make up a tiny fraction of the roughly 280 million vehicles on the road in the U.S., environmental groups said the decision to order new gasoline-powered replacements could be consequential. An all-electric fleet would not only deliver environmental benefits and help an emerging manufacturing sector, but also serve as a powerful symbol of an administration that is determined to speed the transition away from fossil fuels.
“Instead of moving forward with common-sense and available technology to mitigate the climate crisis, clean up our air, and create good union jobs, USPS has decided to keep polluting communities at a time when federal agencies should be leading the way on electrification,” said Katherine García, a policy expert with the Sierra Club, one of the environmental litigants.