Biden order could boost electric mail trucks, tanks

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2021

President Biden yesterday told federal agencies to buy zero-emission vehicles as part of a flurry of executive action on climate change.

The directive is a small but significant step on the path to reaching net-zero emissions from transportation, the country’s largest source of greenhouse gases, climate experts said.

It could also bolster EV adoption by the Pentagon and the U.S. Postal Service, which rely heavily on fossil fuel-powered cars and trucks for their operations, former defense officials and analysts told E&E News.

As of 2019, there were more than 645,000 vehicles in the federal fleet, according to the General Services Administration.

By comparison, there were more than 276 million vehicles on the road in America in 2019, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a division of the Department of Transportation.

The directive is “a good first step that allows the federal government to show the way. But almost 300 million vehicles would need to follow,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Ben Prochazka, national director of the Electrification Coalition, said the government can pave the way for consumers and companies that remain wary of EVs.

“The federal fleet is a heavyweight customer with immense purchasing power,” Prochazka said in a statement.

“All the positive impacts will reverberate far beyond the federal fleet, because the public sector’s sharp increase in demand for EVs will prime the pump for private-sector fleets and the consumer market,” he added.

The mandate on federal fleets came as part of a broader executive order on “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.”

The order directs the newly formed National Climate Task Force to develop a “comprehensive plan to create good jobs and stimulate clean energy industries by revitalizing the Federal Government’s sustainability efforts.”

The plan should aim to help procure “clean and zero-emission vehicles for Federal, State, local, and Tribal government fleets, including vehicles of the United States Postal Service,” the order says.

That language matches a line in Biden’s climate plan from his presidential campaign, which called for “using the federal government procurement system — which spends $500 billion every year — to drive towards 100% clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles.”

‘Lead by example’

Of the 645,000 total vehicles in the federal fleet in 2019, there were 225,000 post office vehicles, the GSA data shows.

The boxy white trucks that have become emblematic of USPS were built between 1987 and 1994 and only get 10 mpg, Vox reported. They consumed 195 million gallons of gasoline equivalent in 2019.

Replacing the aging USPS trucks with electric models would demonstrate to all Americans that Biden was all in on EVs, said Corey Cantor, a transport analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“When governments signal that they’re going to procure EVs, it’s another way of them saying that this is where they think the future should be,” Cantor said.

An additional 173,000 vehicles in the federal fleet in 2019 were operated by the Pentagon, which routinely consumes half of U.S. discretionary spending, according to the GSA data.

“The Department of Defense can lead by example because it’s the biggest buyer of most things for the U.S. government,” said Sherri Goodman, who served as the first deputy undersecretary of Defense for environmental security under President Obama.

“Everything it does, it does on a scale larger than most federal agencies,” said Goodman, who’s now a senior strategist at the Center for Climate and Security.

Retired Navy Adm. Jonathan Greenert said EVs may have a tactical advantage in military operations: They’re much quieter than their gasoline- and diesel-powered counterparts.

“It’s not necessarily an insignificant thing to have a quiet vehicle — something you don’t hear from far away,” said Greenert, who is affiliated with Securing America’s Future Energy, a group that advocates for reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

The Army has been experimenting with battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in recent years, although electric tanks may not replace diesel tanks for a decade, National Defense Magazine reported.

‘Real potential’

The mandate on federal fleets builds on Biden’s executive order from Monday, which encouraged the government to buy American-made products (Climatewire, Jan. 26).

Yesterday’s order states that “agencies shall adhere to the requirements of the Made in America Laws in making clean energy, energy efficiency, and clean energy procurement decisions.”

That could be good news for General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. Both have invested billions of dollars in EV production.

“We’re pleased to see the Biden Administration making climate change an early and high priority, along with focusing on American manufacturing,” Bob Holycross, Ford’s vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering, said in an emailed statement to E&E News.

“Together, those missions will help assure the continued success of the U.S. auto industry and the good that implies for customers, employees and other stakeholders,” Holycross added.

Still, transitioning the federal fleet to EVs is just one step on a long road to decarbonizing the transportation sector, sources said.

The biggest single step that the Biden administration can take to increase EV adoption is setting ambitious clean car standards, said Becker of CBD.

“The auto industry tends only to do what they are required to do,” Becker said. “So there needs to be rules that require a much bigger improvement from the industry.”

Beyond executive action, Congress has authority over other efforts to juice EV sales, such as expanding the federal EV tax credit and establishing a program to let consumers trade in their old gas-powered cars.

To that end, the order states that “if necessary,” the members of the National Climate Task Force “shall recommend any additional legislation needed to accomplish these objectives.”

Such legislation faces better odds of success now that Democrats control the Senate, said Cantor of BloombergNEF.

“There’s the real potential, working with Congress, to make those types of changes,” he said.