Pain to gain: Crude prices to triple?

Oil investors are trying to survive a brutal start to the year. They're coping with crude prices sinking to 12-year lows as Chinese demand falls and ballooning U.S. stockpiles fuel fear.

Relief, however, may be on the way. One top analyst expects prices to triple back into the $90 a barrel range by 2018. At present, few analysts expect crude prices to recover that sharply.

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But before the markets get there, the pain could intensify.

"It looks like a rough year," Wolfe Research managing director and senior oil and gas analyst Paul Sankey told CNBC's "Fast Money" recently. "Our base-case scenario is not for a full-blown recession," but the firm is "pretty negative" on the year.

Yet Sankey thinks the end might be in sight. He said he expects prices to average in the $40 a barrel range in 2016 — about $10 higher from current levels. Once the current turmoil ends, and OPEC overcomes its inability to forge a consensus on production cuts, Sankey believes the market will eventually head higher as excess capacity gets used up.

At that time, oil will retest levels above $90, he added.

In that scenario, Sankey likes the refiners the best. "Our bull case for refining is about U.S. gasoline demand being strong," he added. "At a given point if things get bad enough, the big oils will outperform on balance sheet."

He named Pioneer Natural Resources and Occidental Petroleum as the players with the strongest balance sheets.

The biggest wildcard to Sankey's forecast: A recession.

"It is definitely a possibility. There's no question about that," he said.

Trader disclosure: Wolfe Research Sr. Analyst Paul Sankey: No conflicts.