Elevated prices give energy firms more reason to drill, which means more jobs and higher state permitting and tax revenues, said Anthony Greco, an economist at the University of Louisiana.

To be sure, the recession has not completely bypassed Lafayette. Unemployment has more than doubled since the start of the national downturn in late 2007. Still, the metro jobless rate has remained consistently below state and national levels. As of March, in fact, only one metro area in the Southeast had a lower unemployment rate than Lafayette's 6.3 percent—nearby Houma- Thibodaux, according to the BLS. For all of 2010, Lafayette's jobless rate averaged 6 percent, compared to 7.5 percent state-wide and 9.6 percent nationally.

Petroleum power
Lafayette is without question the Southeast's energy industry center. As of March, mining employment, as the BLS categorizes the oil and gas jobs, made up 10.4 percent of the metro area's nonfarm employment, compared to 2.7 percent in Louisiana overall and just 0.6 percent in the United States. Indeed, Lafayette's 15,200 energy mining jobs are the most in any Louisiana metro area, according

to the BLS, and more than in many entire states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. (Lafayette's total is almost certainly higher than Tennessee's as well, but that state's mining figures include construction jobs and so are difficult to compare.)

The energy industry has fueled prosperity in south Louisiana for decades. Jobs in the industry pay 25 percent above the average local wage, according to a March 2011 report by Mike Zoller of Moody's Analytics. Even better, Lafayette's oil and gas employment includes a hefty number of headquarters and back-office positions, such as engineers and administrators. Those are more resistant to industry fluctuations than blue-collar jobs on rigs, said Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans. 

That resilience came into play recently. The federal moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico that ended in October 2010 hurt Lafayette less than expected, Gothreaux said. Still, it had an effect: along with most of the population centers in south Louisiana, Lafayette has lost jobs since March 2010, the last full month before the BP oil spill off Louisiana that triggered the moratorium.