The Trump administration has called back Bureau of Ocean Energy Management workers — with pay — to keep processing offshore seismic testing permits in the Atlantic.
The callback came as some 800,000 other federal employees are not working or not being paid because of the continuing government shutdown.
The testing, which involves loud airgun blasts underwater, is a precursor to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. Both are widely opposed on the coast.
The callback has been criticized by conservationists and officials working to stop the exploration off South Carolina and other states.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has also asked a federal judge not to delay a ruling on Wilson's pending motion that seeks to allow the state to join a lawsuit by opponents to stop the testing.
The delay was requested earlier this month by the Trump administration's Department of Justice, which said it didn't have staff or funds to handle the case in court while the federal government is shut down.
As part of the motion to stay, Justice Department attorneys said the lease permits would not be acted on while the partial federal shutdown is in effect.
If Wilson's motion is granted, South Carolina could "respond immediately" if permits are issued, Wilson said.
The BOEM staff callback came in a rewrite of the agency's contingency plan for the shutdown. In December, the bureau issued a plan designating what employees would be kept on duty. But on Jan. 8, a new plan was issued adding 40 scientists and technical editors for return to process leasing for the Atlantic coast — nearly 50 percent more staffers than were designated previously to keep working on other projects.
"These employees will be designated as exempt for only the amount of time needed to complete this work," the plan said. "They will be funded through carryover."
Asked Wednesday about the new plan, a BOEM spokeswoman said in an auto reply email she could not respond because she has been furloughed during the shutdown.
The BOEM staffers are among tens of thousands federal workers quietly being returned to their jobs despite original shutdown guidelines and as the shutdown overall continues in its third week.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, said he considered any step toward offshore drilling to be a step in the wrong direction. Cunningham ran for office partly on his opposition to the work.
"The first priority of this administration should be re-opening the government, not pursuing dangerous and unwanted seismic airgun blasting," said spokeswoman Rebecca Drago.
An attorney for the conservation groups taking part in the lawsuit opposing the leases said she was astounded President Trump's administration is finding ways to staff the leasing operations.
Attorney Catherine Wannamaker questioned the timing "while the shutdown has halted food-safety inspections, closed national parks and trapped airline travelers in hours-long security lines."
The International Association of Geophysical Contractors, which represents exploration companies, declined to comment on BOEM's move.