Futures Now

Here's the one 'big, looming' threat facing the oil rally, commodity expert says

Oil prices likely to head higher as OPEC stands firm on production cuts, says RBC's Helima Croft
Oil prices likely to head higher as OPEC stands firm on production cuts, says RBC's Helima Croft

One oil bull sees a "big, looming" risk bubbling up in the energy market.

RBC Capital Markets' Helima Croft, the firm's global head of commodity strategy, is generally bullish on oil prices.

She sees OPEC's commitment to productions cuts, the United States' sanctions on Iran and Venezuela and overall demand for crude as healthy drivers of the oil rally, which has taken per-barrel prices up by nearly a third so far this year.

But there's one major risk that could threaten this recent surge, Croft told CNBC in an interview on "Futures Now."

"The bear case [for oil] is continuing fears about global demand," Croft said Thursday. "That is a really big headwind for a lot of people on oil. They're very concerned still about where trade talks go. They're very concerned about potentially weak numbers out of China; what does that mean for oil demand? So I really do think that the demand story is the big, looming negative headwind for oil. I think it's kind of the sum of all fears in terms of the oil market."

Fears of an oil glut aren't new. The International Energy Agency warned in February that global oil supply was on track to outpace demand despite global production cuts and U.S. sanctions.

Yet bearish commodity-watchers have brought these worries back to the fore in their conversations with Croft, she said, as U.S.-China trade talks seemingly grow more complicated and tensions between Washington and Saudi Arabia come under scrutiny.

"There is a bit of a lingering fear that President [Donald] Trump could pick up the phone to Saudi Arabia and put pressure on the Saudis and say, 'You call off this OPEC cut,'" Croft said. "[Bears] look at something like the NOPEC bill, which would declare OPEC a cartel, and they say, 'If that moves through Congress, will OPEC still want to carry through with the cuts, or will they be so scared that Washington will break them up that they essentially abandon the production cut?'"

Still, Croft isn't quite in the bear camp. U.S. crude prices have been trading near four-month highs on several bullish factors, including OPEC's resolve to keep production on the lower end and falling U.S. stockpiles, and she sees the strength continuing in the near term.

"The question is, what does Donald Trump do in May? Does he try to take more Iranian exports off the market? Does he also try to impose secondary sanctions on Venezuela and force Venezuela's importers out of the market?" she asked. "I think those are the sort of bull stories for oil."

Croft's near-term targets are between $56.50 and $63.59 for U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude, and between $66.00 and $73.50 for the international benchmark, Brent crude.

WTI crude prices traded lower Friday, hovering in the $59-a-barrel range. Brent crude prices also headed lower, but maintained what Croft cast as a reliable floor of support at $66 a barrel.