That's like finding out that sport utility vehicle you want is now $30,000 instead of $25,000, or that the suit you're planning to buy is $600, not $500. The bad guys in this case aren't obvious, as USA Today has pointed out. The big fuel-price climb is due mainly to a complicated switch to summer-blend fuel from winter blend, required by federal air pollution regulations; by the routine and seasonal rise in crude-oil prices; and by a strike in Venezuela that's keeping oil off tankers. Unrest in the Middle East An additional factor that may make fuel prices rise even higher is the Iraqi oil embargo announced by President Saddam Hussein. Iraq's former archenemy Iran quickly indicated its willingness to join an Arab oil embargo to protest the recent Israeli takeover of Palestinian territory. Libya, led by Col. Muammar Qaddafi, also expressed support for using oil as a weapon. Israel has in the past weeks invaded several Palestinian strongholds on the West Bank in response to a wave of suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists. Even before Saddam's announcement and Iran's apparent willingness to go along with him, oil industry analysts were predicting the third-highest summer gas prices in history. But if a general Arab oil embargo takes shape, all bets are off. Let This Be A Lesson All of this serves to point up just how vulnerable the United States is to events beyond its control. Wars, strikes and tensions outside our own borders can have big effects on the American economy. We learned this in the 1973 Arab oil embargo, and we got refresher courses with the Gulf War in 1991 and with the current situation in the Middle East. As you are all too aware by now, a spike in fuel prices like the one we're currently undergoing has a major impact on your profits, considering that fueling your vehicles is one of your biggest business expenses. How Do We React? The question at this point becomes, what can we do about this vulnerability? Being able to chart our economic course without taking into account what might or might not happen in a very unstable region -- which just happens to contain the planet's biggest oil fields -- would help. Taking a look at the other major oil producers -- Russia and Venezuela, for instance -- isn't very reassuring. Those countries haven't exactly been paragons of stability lately. After almost a decade of touting fuel cell technology as the ultimate replacement for the internal combustion engine, automakers are slowly starting to actually sell a few fuel cell-powered vehicles. The automakers are staying with their long-held estimates that mass-produced, widely available fuel cell vehicles will not be possible until 2010 at the earliest, mainly due to cost, infrastructure and safety challenges. Given the current political climate in the Middle East and elsewhere, that sounds like a very long time. Putting fuel cell research on the fast track would be a wise course of action. You may be asking, "But what can I do THIS month to lower my fuel costs?" Fuel management programs are the way to go for immediate and measurable savings. Many firms have reported savings of between 10 and 20 percent on their monthly fuel bills.