New Zealand climate activist faces up to 10 years in jail for fake letter 'cancelling' oil industry conference

Rosemary Penwarden, a climate activist in New Zealand, faces more than 10 years in jail for a fake letter canceling an oil conference.
Rosemary Penwarden, a climate activist in New Zealand, faces more than 10 years in jail for a fake letter canceling an oil conference. Photo credit: Courtesy Rosemary Penwarden

climate activist in New Zealand faces 10 years in jail after a court found her guilty of forgery for sending a fake letter to the speakers at an oil industry conference, telling them it had been postponed due to the climate crisis.

Rosemary Penwarden, who lives near Dunedin, sent a letter to people who were slated to speak at the PEPANZ (Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand) conference in 2019, posing as the conference organizers.

“I was trying to be creative,” said Penwarden, who is 64 and has been a climate protester since the birth of her grandson in 2011.

She had been protesting outside oil conferences for years, but the 2019 PEPANZ conference was taking place in quite a small town and she was concerned few activists would be able to attend, she told CNN.

Five days before the conference, she sent the letter by email, purporting to be from oil industry organizers canceling the event until further notice.

The letter included the lines: “We are deeply concerned at the rapidly accelerating social and political changes engulfing us, highlighted by many of our own children preparing to strike from school to demand a safe future,” according to extracts published in a Greenpeace statement.

It added: “Furthermore, despite our best efforts at secrecy, activists have discovered this year’s conference and were yet again planning noise and disruption. But there is a silver lining to all of this: we will not be there to listen to that incessant chanting.”

It was intended to be “satirical,” Penwarden said, to “ruffle the feathers” of the oil industry. “I never intended for them to take it seriously,” she added.

PEPANZ organizers told speakers that the letter was fake and the conference went ahead.

Penwarden said she then heard nothing until the police came to her home months later, in the summer of 2020, arrested her and confiscated her laptop and mobile.

Three years later, after a trial in the Dunedin District Court, Penwarden was found guilty on Wednesday of two charges of creating and using a forged document.

“It was a surprise,” she said. “I’m reminded of the topsy-turvy world we’re in. It should not be the grandmothers on trial, it should be the oil industry, it should be those people who are making massive profits off the destruction of all of our futures.”

Greenpeace program director, Niamh O’Flynn, called Penwarden’s experience an “injustice” and a “huge waste of resources.” “We need climate action now more than ever. We need more people like Rosemary prepared to take a stand,” O’Flynn said in a statement.

CNN contacted Energy Resources Aotearoa, formerly known as PEPANZ, for comment, but had not heard back at the time of publication.

Sentencing is scheduled for September 8, according to Dunedin District Court. While the maximum jail sentence is 10 years, Penwarden said her lawyers are asking for “discharge without conviction.”

Penwarden said she plans to continue pushing governments to take action against the climate crisis. “It takes a little bit of courage to step outside every day life. And try to put a little bit of a spanner in the works of this system that is taking us over a cliff.”