A majority of Americans favor retaining existing environmental laws even if that forces further factory closings or a reduction in energy production, according to an extensive opinion survey on the subject.

The survey, conducted for the Continental Group Inc. of Stamford, Conn., a major energy, forest products and packaging company, is billed as the most comprehensive study ever made that documents a persistent "environmental ethic" -- spanning business leaders and the unemployed, liberals and conservatives -- in the face of economic hard times.

The study is significant because, unlike other opinion polls, it required participants to weigh their support for environmental protection against such possible alternatives as slower economic growth or higher consumer prices.

Based on interviews conducted last February and March with 1,310 people selected to mirror the national population, plus 263 corporate executives and 343 members of environmental groups, the survey found:

* 55 percent of those interviewed favor maintaining present air pollution standards "even if some factories close as a result."

* 56 percent favor keeping current environmental regulations "even if it slows the production of more energy."

* 60 percent favor giving priority to environmental cleanup "even if companies have to charge more for their products and services."

At the same time, 70 percent of those interviewed said they had been hurt by the current economic recession. One unusual finding showed stronger sentiment for protecting the environment among people who were looking for jobs than among those employed full time.

The findings, released by Continental Group board chairman and chief executive officer S. Bruce Smart Jr., could have public policy implications since the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are up for reauthorization in Congress.

They reinforce earlier polls by Louis Harris Associates, which found 83 percent of Americans favor keeping the Clean Air Act intact or stiffening it, in the face of administration proposals to relax several standards. White House polls also have shown strong public opposition to weakening environmental regulations, despite general support for reducing regulatory burdens on business.

Smart said Continental undertook the study in part because federal environmental regulations affect a wide range of the company's activities: packaging, forest products and oil and gas exploration.

Since public sentiment could influence future regulations, "we thought it would be useful for our own purposes and society at large to determine where the public and environmental and business leaders were on this supposed tradeoff," said Smart, a board member of the Nature Conservancy, a business-oriented environmental group.

The survey, conducted by Research and Forecasts Inc. of New York, cast doubt on some familiar stereotypes. For example, despite the general view of business as anti-environment, the survey found strong support among corporate executives for strong environmental protections. And despite the support for strong environmental laws, 71 percent of those polled said government regulation of business does more harm than good.

Meanwhile, the study found that major corporations rank last in public trust among a group of 10 American institutions, including the medical community, higher education, the press, organized religion and environmental groups.

Environmental groups hailed the findings. "There has been a growing realization of the consequences of environmental damage," said the Wilderness Society's Bill Turnage. "The fact of the matter is that the public is not crass. They are not motivated predominantly by money."